After the Arab Spring, media restrictions tighten in ways unprecedented in Randa Habib’s 24 years as Agence France-Press bureau chief in Amman, and her life is threatened because of what she reports.
By Randa Habib
My fate to become a journalist in Jordan was sealed in the 1970’s when I was a second-year political science student at the French-run St. Joseph University in Beirut, Lebanon. I was freelancing for a Lebanese magazine when I had the opportunity to interview the late King Hussein and also met with the Jordanian man who would become my husband. In 1980 I joined Agence France-Presse (AFP) and seven years later became bureau chief in Amman, Jordan.
The road has been bumpy ever since, given that my instincts push me toward the news, ignoring the restraints imposed on the Jordanian media. I encountered problems not only when I covered the bloody 1989 clashes in southern Jordan, where the authorities sought to impose a blackout, but also for less sensitive news like the creation of an economic council for Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Yemen. While the authorities could easily prevent any local newspaper from publishing my AFP stories, they could never stop people from listening to my reports on Radio Monte Carlo’s popular Arabic-language program.
Jordanian officials were not alone in their desire—or attempts—to silence my reporting. During the 1990-1991 Gulf War and what followed, Iraqi authorities, angered at my uncensored reports, didn’t hesitate to publish threats against me in local newspapers: “If Radio Monte Carlo does not shut up this correspondent, we know how to shut her up forever,” read one of them. And they were not joking. They orchestrated several attempts on my life. But that was Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
In Jordan at the time, despite numerous government denials of my accurate news reports, I never feared for my life. I was not in danger, even when I broke a taboo in reporting for the AFP the ailing King Hussein’s intention to change the successor to the throne, before he officially announced it. When he returned to Jordan in January 1999 two weeks before he died, he named his eldest son Prince Abdullah as heir, instead of the monarch’s brother, Prince Hassan. I exposed in my 2007 book, “Hussein and Abdullah: Inside the Jordanian Royal Family,” the details of King Hussein’s decision and described how I learned (from the king himself) about this change in succession.
A Jordanian policeman inspects the Agence France-Presse (AFP) offices in Amman after a break-in on June 15, 2011. Two days earlier the news agency was among several foreign media to report that the king’s motorcade had been attacked. Photo by Khalil Mazraawi/AFP.
A Fearful Climate
Today, unfortunately, there are more taboo topics and less of a sense of safety in crossing the lines. Since February, the Jordanian authorities have shown a tougher edge in their dealings with the news media. I was made the subject of a defamation campaign, as some officials explained in private, because of the “dangerous impact and credibility” of my reports. Indeed regional events of the Arab Spring have created a tense climate across Jordan as its leaders are wary of taking risks by allowing their people to be aware of information not in line with the government’s official position.
So the authorities, particularly the palace, now move quickly when displeased by news coverage. On February 9, after AFP—like all other major international media outlets—published excerpts from a statement of 36 tribal figures criticizing Queen Rania and accusing her family of corruption, I was the only journalist targeted. In an unprecedented move, the palace issued a harsh communiqué, attacking me personally, and instructed the Jordanian media to publish the communiqué in full and in the most obvious way, which they did.
A three-page letter, signed by the Royal Court chief, was addressed to Emmanuel Hoog, AFP chairman. It denounced my alleged lack of professionalism, accused me of being not a journalist but an activist, and encouraged AFP to replace me with someone else, who, the palace assured, would be treated very well.
As expected, Hoog defended and supported me. But following his response, the media department at the Royal Court decided to boycott AFP in Amman, denying us access to any activity and removing us from its official mailing list. It is interesting to note that no action has been taken against the tribal personalities, at least to my knowledge.
The government-controlled Jordan Times newspaper decided to stop my weekly Randa Habib’s Corner column, published there on and off since the 1980’s. I reacted by publishing my column in English and Arabic on the popular local news website Ammon. But after things turned violent here in June I decided to stop writing my column to help calm things down and avoid adversely affecting the lives of those around me.
A Threat, Then an Attack
On June 13, AFP and other international media quoted security officials and other sources as saying that the “rear part” of the king’s motorcade was attacked by youths during a visit to the southern city of Tafileh.After the news hit the AFP wires, I started receiving threatening phone calls accusing me of being a “traitor” who is “trying to undermine the country’s security and stability.”
Three members of Parliament were particularly persistent, demanding the government try me in a military court. One of them is the controversial Yehya Saud, a member of Parliament from Tafileh, who organized protests outside AFP offices and the French embassy in Amman. He repeatedly demanded the government close the AFP bureau, take me to court, and expel me. The first protest Saud organized was announced by Petra, the Jordanian official news agency, which provided the street address for the AFP office.
Two days after the report, I received a call on my mobile phone. The caller confidently presented himself as Saud before he directly threatened me. “I will make you pay. I will chop you up into pieces. I will destroy your office and all those working there,” Saud told me. I let him know that I would sue him for his threats. “I do not care,” he assured me. “Those who [tapped the phone] are listening to this call know my plans.”
I responded to all of this by informing the police, Amman’s governor, and the prime minister and asking them for protection. But nothing happened. I announced the threat on Twitter. Three hours later, 10 men broke into AFP’s offices and destroyed windows, furniture and equipment. I wasn’t there during the attack, but a reporter who was managed to escape unharmed. Police assigned to protect Al Jazeera since that network had received threats in mid-March did not notice the attack against our news agency, even though their car was parked outside offices a few yards from the AFP building.
We still do not have the police report about the attack we need to take legal action. We have given the police all the details they requested; our neighbors have identified at least two of the assailants and two Al Jazeera staffers saw Saud overseeing the attack a few yards away from the AFP office. Meanwhile, Saud continues his tirades against me, warning that if France keeps protecting me, its relations with Jordan will be at risk.
In July, while King Abdullah was meeting France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, Saud demonstrated again outside the AFP offices. “We are still waiting for the government to put Randa Habib on trial,” Saud said in a speech. “We give the government 24 hours to try and expel her.” Protesters tried to attack our office but the police stopped them.
The next day Saud led another demonstration outside the French embassy in Amman, again demanding my resignation.
Reaction to the Pressure
Bernard Valero, spokesman for the French foreign ministry, said, “Over recent days, the bureau and staff of Agence France-Presse in Amman have been the target of aggressive demonstrations that have raised our concern.” After Sarkozy met with the king, a source said that “the issue [of the attack against AFP] was raised on the sidelines of a working lunch he had with the king. We are especially concerned about the safety of the AFP bureau in Amman and its staff.”
Many have condemned the attack and the demonstrations. Information Minister Taher Adwan, a veteran journalist who was the editor of an independent newspaper, vocally denounced it. He took part in a demonstration in support of AFP. When he resigned a few days later in protest of restrictive laws that the government is proposing, he referred to them as “a blow to the reform drive.” He harshly condemned attacks on the media, accusing the authorities of being lenient toward such abuses.
But threats and attacks against the press persist. The editor of a news website wants to sue Saud for allegedly threatening to put a bullet in his head after the journalist refused to remove an article published on his site. Another journalist is seeking legal action against the same member of Parliament because he beat him during a demonstration.
Nobody knows if Saud is acting alone. Or does he enjoy the support of authorities who are so far turning a blind eye to his actions, giving him the opportunity to present himself as a savior of the country? What we are left knowing is this: Journalists and citizens sense that their country is in turmoil as the drafting of restrictive laws proceeds while an evident pressing need for governmental reform and change is denied.
With the eyes of the government fixed on the rippling revolutions of the Arab Spring, the dangers for independent journalists are on the rise at a time when the consequences for those who threaten and attack them seem not to exist.