Jordanian cartoonist Emad al-Hajjaj arrested for satirising UAE-Israel deal

Jordanian authorities should immediately release and drop abusive charges against Emad Hajjaj, a cartoonist, says Human Rights Watch. Jordanian authorities arrested Hajjaj on 26 August 2020, for publishing a satirical cartoon about the Israeli-United Arab Emirates (UAE) diplomatic agreement.

Hajjaj, 53, is a prominent Jordanian cartoonist whose satirical cartoons have appeared in major Jordanian daily newspapers for decades. A source close to him told Human Rights Watch that authorities arrested Hajjaj for posting a cartoon to his website and social media depicting a dove with an Israeli flag spitting in the face of the UAE de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed. The cartoon referenced recent reports that the Israeli government had urged the United States not to sell F-35 combat aircraft to the UAE despite the recent diplomatic agreement to normalise relations between Israel and the UAE.

“Calling a satirical cartoon a terrorism offence only confirms that Jordan intends to muzzle citizens who speak freely,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This arrest sends the message that Jordanian authorities would rather abuse the rights of their own citizens than risk offending a gulf leader’s feelings.”

On 27 August, prosecutors announced that they had ordered Hajjaj’s detention for 14 days and referred him to the State Security Court on the charge of “disturbing [Jordan’s] relations with a foreign state,” an offence under Jordan’s counterterrorism law. The arrest follows a trend toward increasing restrictions on free expression in Jordan, Human Rights Watch said.

The source told Human Rights Watch that Jordanian police detained Hajjaj on the evening of 26 August as he was leaving his farm in the Jordan Valley and held him overnight at the electronic crimes unit of Jordan’s Public Security Directorate. On 27 August, the public prosecutor referred him to the State Security Court for prosecution.

Hajjaj faces possible trial under article 3.b. of Jordan’s counterterrorism law, an overly broad provision that prohibits “undertaking acts that expose the kingdom to hostile acts or disturb its relations with a foreign state or expose Jordanians to the danger of retaliatory acts against them or their money.” Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases in which the authorities have used this provision to punish Jordanians merely for publishing articles or social media posts critical of other countries, especially for criticism of gulf countries or their leaders.

International human rights law, including article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Jordan ratified in 1975, protects freedom of expression and opinion. It permits restrictions on these rights for the protection of national security only when they are necessary and proportional to that end. Punishing public criticism of other countries’ policies is neither necessary nor proportional, and amounts to a direct attack on free speech, Human Rights Watch said.

Hajjaj’s detention reflects a broader deterioration of protections for free expression and media freedom in Jordan in recent years. Human Rights Watch reported in August that journalists have experienced increased restrictions on their reporting in the form of gag orders and harassment by security forces. Most recently, following the closure of the Jordanian Teachers’ Syndicate on 25 July, Attorney General Hassan al-Abdallat immediately published a gag order prohibiting the publication or discussion of details surrounding the case. Two journalists reported that Jordanian police assaulted them at recent demonstrations even after they identified themselves as reporters.

In addition to releasing Hajjaj and dropping the abusive charges against him, the Jordanian authorities should stop enforcing and work to remove overly broad articles from the country’s Penal Code, Electronic Crimes Law, and counterterrorism law that are frequently used to unduly restrict Jordanians’ right to freedom of expression. This should include removing entirely article 3.b. of the counterterrorism law, Human Rights Watch said.

“Jordan should be more concerned about harming its international standing through these politically motivated prosecutions than about its citizens peacefully criticising other countries’ rulers,” Stork said.    (Human Rights Watch)