Saturday, January 20, 2007

A misframed debate

The National Guidance Committee of the parliament has approved the draft press law and submitted it to the full house for debate. This law has been contentious for a long time, and the press is unhappy with the current version.

The source of unhappiness is that the law does not prohibit jailing of journalists for press crimes. It merely states that “Taking into consideration other legislation, it is prohibited to arrest or punish by jail as the result of expressing an opinion through saying, writing or any other form of expression”. The term “taking into consideration” means that other laws that do prescribe jail sentences can be enforced. It turns out that there are 24 of these laws, including article 150 of the criminal code.

So, should people be jailed for expression crimes? I think that there is a problem in framing this question. I would reframe it as following: are there cases where expression should be criminalized? If so, what are these crimes? The Jordan Press Association should not ask for immunity from jail for “crimes of expression”. It should demand that there are no such things as “crimes of expression”.

It is unfortunate that we are still having this type of debate, but many people would agree that Jordanian society is not ready for the type of free expression that exists in real democracies. Our opposition parties, particularly the IAF, are openly opposed to all sorts of freedom of expression. During the last budget debate, IAF deputy Ali Utoum demanded that a statement by leftist deputy Mustafa Shneikat be scrapped from the minutes. Shneikat suggested that there should be separation between state and religion, which Utoum characterized as unconstitutional. This was based on the grounds that the constitution says that the religion of the state is Islam (whatever that means).

Given that people want democracy, as long as nobody says anything controversial (or interesting), there should be a critical review of all 24 laws in question. Even if the provisions in them are acceptable (I sincerely doubt it in most cases), then they should be spelled out, and vague wording should be clarified, so that everybody knows what is meant by “elongation of the tongue”, “insulting the dignity of the state”, “inciting sectarian strife or encouraging conflict between communities and various elements of the nation” or “insulting the fathers of the monotheistic religions (as they are dead, we will never know what they might construe as an insult)”. It would be better just to scrap all of these provisions rather that to try and define them. The vagueness of these definitions is just as chilling to freedom of expression as potential jail sentences, if not more. A cynical person would conclude that this is the whole point.

Why is everybody so afraid? Let’s do it!

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At 3:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Khalaf...Thank you for shedding light on this very controversial subject. I don't know much about it. But now I am keen on learning more about this unsyndicated right! In doing so I probably should pay attention not to violate any aticle of these 24 laws. With the rate things are going it seems "ALHABL ALA AL JARRAR"...At this point I wonder how this post in your blog is classified..."elongationg of the tongue" seems to me like a good bet.

The assault on free media is one of the most striking signs of the day (in the free and not so free wrolds). We are no exception. Let's hope we muster the guts to be different.

At 4:43 PM, Blogger Khalaf said...

Tallouza: We should muster the guts. This should setting aside all taboos on free speach. Not half solutions.

At 3:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Khalaf...Even though Toni Morrison was writing about a completely different subject, I find this quote from "Playing in the Dark" to be quite interesting as far as free speech is concerned:
"Silence from and about the subject was the order of the day. Some of the silences were broken, and some were maintained by authors who lived with and within the policing strategies. What I am interested in are the strategies for breaking it."

At 5:55 PM, Blogger Khalaf said...

Indeed. I suppose that blogs are a good place to start, in our case.

At 12:02 AM, Anonymous Hamzeh N. said...

I completely agree with what you are saying regarding the debate on freedom of speech in Jordan and the press law. The problem today is not really in the law itself, but the other 24 laws.

However, and even though it pains me to say this, we must be careful before deciding to do away with all such laws that designate crimes of expression.

If all these laws were wiped clear today, how soon would it be before Jordan faces a situation similar to that in Denmark a year ago with the cartoons. The state will probably not be against freedom of expression then, but the vast majority of the people will be.

But to everyone reading my words, be careful not to mistake them for defense of whatever those current 24 articles of the law are that Khalaf is talking about. I think if we were to truely and honestly revise these articles, we would probably only need to keep one or two and have them define the offense in clearer terms or restricting their application to when the alleged harm due to these "offenses" has actually happened and is physical.

At 4:25 PM, Anonymous Alex said...

I think that it is particularly important to have freedom of press regaridng religion. While I am not a fan of offending religious sensibilities, sometimes it must be done.

Also, freedom is a two way road. And when you want to to have freedom to say that fulano is too mutashaddad or too liberal, then they must have freedom to say the same of you, or to critique the teachings of your religious tradition, or even (gasp) to criticize the life and teachings of the founder or key figure in your religion.

And yes, as a Christian, I will defend someone's freedom to criticize the teachings and life of Jesus the Messiah, as they are presented in the Gospels.


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