The passing of King Hussein: Jordan prays for a miracle

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The Independent Online
AS NEWSPAPERS, radio and television give the latest details about King Hussein's failing health, ordinary Jordanians are starved of information.

State television yesterday said only that he was in a serious condition in hospital, and the television developed a sudden enthusiasm for showing documentaries on wild animals, Arab musical instruments and Bedouin culture.

Outside his hospital, the King Hussein Medical City, thousands of people lit candles at twilight and prayed out loud for a miraculous recovery. Men and women wept and embraced. When five members of the royal family left the hospital, they were engulfed by the crowd. "How is our dear king?" they shouted. Later, Queen Noor walked through the crowd and repeatedly bowed her head in a gesture of thanks.

Elsewhere in Amman, people placed flowers under the thousands of posters and portraits of the king around the capital. In the city's small shops, Jordanians could be seen pressing their ears to radios as they tried to pick up the BBC in Arabic, or radio Monte Carlo (the French equivalent). Al Rai, the largest newspaper, could reveal little more than that the king was receiving medical treatment at a local hospital. Only one private newspaper, the daily al-Arab al-Yawm, felt able to devote most of its space to the one topic of interest to its readers at the moment.

Jordanians say they are struck by the fact that at the moment when American television presenters are lavishly praising the dying king's political liberalism, the Jordanian media has maintained an almost Soviet circumspection about the real state of his health. "There is nothing in the newspapers," said Saida Kilani, who wrote a report last year about press freedom and freedom of expression in Jordan. "They don't dare write about anything sensitive. It would take just one mistake to close down a newspaper." Instead Jordanians rely on foreign radios or satellite television, such as al-Jezira, based in Qatar.

Up to 1997 Jordan had a lively press. "People were writing and talking about really sensitive issues like tribalism, Jordanian-Palestinian relations and even polygamy," said Ms Kilani. "Nowadays they cannot." Feeling increasingly threatened by regional crises the government clamped down. The Jordan Times, once a lively read, now has column after column of dreary government pronouncements.

Jordanian journalists are not to blame. A stringent press law introduced almost two years ago introduced heavy penalties for discussing almost any topic, from the king and the armed forces to religion and the national currency. Small papers were forced to show that they had a large capital sum in the bank. Thirteen of them, unable to raise the money, were closed.

The result of the new laws is that Jordanian journalists practise rigorous self-censorship. Many are disillusioned. One former editor has left the country to run a motel in Las Vegas.

For those who go ahead and publish, the penalties can be harsh. Fawd Rimawi, editor of the weekly al-Majeed, is serving 15 days in jail for breaching the national press code. His crime was to report that when King Hussein told his brother Crown Prince Hassan that he was no longer heir to the throne, Hassan laid his revolver before the king and asked to be shot if the king believed he was a traitor.

Iyad Kattan, head of the Information Ministry, said Mr Rimawi is charged with "insulting the monarch, publishing false information about the prime minister and members of the government and attacks on the security service".

Starved of information, Jordanians listen to any and every rumour. Many are convinced that the king is already dead and that the government is simply biding its time before announcing the fact.

It is not quite clear why it should do so, but one Jordanian wanted to know when President Bill Clinton was arriving. He argued that if Mr Clinton came on Sunday then there would have to be a funeral on Monday. Since you cannot have a funeral without a body, the government would have to announce that the king was dead.