Editor’s note: This is the eighth in POMED’s series of short interviews with civic activists, researchers, and others in our MENA network to spotlight the pandemic’s effects on rights and governance across the region. In this Q&A, we are joined by Raya Sharbain, a program coordinator with the Jordan Open Source Association, a nonprofit organization in Amman that promotes open source principles and digital rights. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Background: Jordan announced its first case of COVID-19 on March 2, 2020. Two weeks later, the government suspended school, banned large public gatherings, and closed the borders. This initial response was one of the region’s most stringent. By late April, however, as economic conditions deteriorated, Jordan eased restrictions. To date, Jordan has reported 407,617 COVID-19 cases and 4,793 deaths.
POMED: What has the political and economic situation in Jordan been like during the pandemic?
Raya Sharbain: Since March 2020, Jordan has been ruled under the Defense Law, which gives the government broad emergency powers. Under this law the government has issued more than twenty orders, ranging from requiring mask-wearing to punishing the spread of “misinformation.” The authorities have severely restricted civic space during the pandemic and made it increasingly difficult for activists and journalists to know where the red lines are.
The economic situation has been extremely tough as well. To provide relief to vulnerable populations, the government set up a fund, “Himmat Watan,” to collect donations from citizens. People working in certain hospitals, banks, and corporations are often forced by their employers to donate a portion of their salary to this fund. There is little transparency on how the donations are being used.
POMED: What is the most important “untold story” about rights and freedoms in Jordan during the pandemic?
Sharbain: The crackdown on journalists. Before the pandemic, journalists and activists were more aware of the limits on speech. Now, we are seeing more journalists being arrested and charged under the Antiterrorism Law for strange offenses. Two prominent cases involve journalists Salim Akash and Jamal Haddad. Akash, a Bangladeshi reporter based in Amman, was arrested in April after a Bangladeshi TV channel used his reporting in a story about Bangladeshi workers in Jordan who lost their jobs because of the pandemic. He has been charged under Jordan’s Telecommunications and Antiterrorism laws, although it is unclear exactly what provisions he violated. Akash remains in a Jordanian prison without legal representation and facing deportation. Haddad was arrested in December after publishing an article asking whether government ministers had been vaccinated before members of the public and citing quotes from ministers’ public Facebook pages. He was immediately arrested and charged under the Antiterrorism Law.
POMED: Does the Jordanian public have access to accurate information about the pandemic?
Sharbain: To an extent, yes. The government has relied heavily on online portals to disseminate information. The Health Ministry publishes daily briefings with case numbers, total deaths, and ICU occupancy, as well as precautionary measures that citizens should undertake. Jordanians also have access to a contract-tracing application, but it was poorly executed and the public objected to the fact that downloading it was a requirement to enter government buildings. As for vaccines, the government has not released a rollout plan and there is little coherence in the official statements made about vaccines. Although everyone in Jordan—including refugees—is able to register online for the vaccine, the government has not been clear about who will receive it first.
Mariam Mahmoud works with POMED’s Research Program. Raya Sharbain is a program coordinator with the Jordan Open Source Association. Find her on Twitter @RayaSharbain.