Daniel Pearl Act Identifies Violations of Press Freedom Globally

07/23/2010 12:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With little fanfare in Washington and with few countries in the world noticing, President Barack Obama signed into law an act that will hold governments all around the world accountable for violations of human rights.

The Daniel Pearl Act of 2009, signed into law on May 27, 2010 is an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. The 1961 law requires the US state department to issue annually a country report on human rights practices.

The Daniel Pearl Act requires that these annual reports also include information about the status of the press in foreign countries, violations to press freedoms and actions taken by local governments to remedy those situation. The U.S. Congress looks at the state of human rights of foreign countries when it considers foreign aid to such countries. The most important clause in this act requires the state department to issue ''a description of the status of freedom of the press, including initiatives in favor of freedom of the press and efforts to improve or preserve, as appropriate, the independence of the media, together with an assessment of progress made as a result of those efforts."

Named after the slain Wall Street Journal journalist, the Daniel Pearl Act also asks the U.S. state department to identify "countries in which there were violations of freedom of the press, including direct physical attacks, imprisonment, indirect sources of pressure, and censorship by governments, military, intelligence, or police forces, criminal groups, or armed extremist or rebel groups."

Officials at the US embassy in Amman, as in all other countries, have started to track press freedoms and have begun to identify some of the main areas that they consider Jordan needs to address. Imprisonment of journalists, long identified by journalists as one of the most severe punishments meted out against journalists for expressing an opinion, is listed high on their list. US officials are cognizant of the fact that the current press and publications law doesn't include in its punishment section any detention of journalists. American officials are also aware of the statements made by His Majesty rejecting the incarceration of any Jordanian for the expression of his or her opinion.

But as various local and international press reports have noted, Jordanian journalists can, and have, been imprisoned as a result of violating Jordanian law. As recently as a week ago, a university student, Issam eddine Al 'Ush, was sentenced by the State Security Court to two years on charges of defaming "higher authorities" while commenting on an online forum. His lawyer, former head of the Press Association, Saleh Armouti, has stated that the military district attorney was unable to show any evidence linking Al 'Ush to the crime. The case is being appealed but Issam is still being held in jail.

A few months ago, two other Jordanians were also held for a couple of weeks after making comments on television questioning the activities of the Jordanian armed forces in Afghanistan. Mowafq Mahadeen and Sufyan Tale were arrested and held for two weeks before they were released on bail.

Freedom House, one of the leading international watchdogs that issues an annual report on the state of press freedom, has listed Jordan in the past year as not free. The Amman-based Center for the Defence and Protection of Journalists described the state of Jordan's press freedom as taking "a step back." An editor of the independent daily Al Ghad, Musa Barhoumeh, has said in media reports that his recent firing as editor-in-chief was a result of government interference. The government has strenuously rejected these allegations and has repeatedly forbids any soft containment of the press or journalists through the purchase of large number of ads or subscriptions or providing journalists with various 'gifts' and advantages.

Whether the government is or is not interfering in the media, U.S. officials are mandated to study the situation, identify legislative problems and make public recommendations as to what Jordan will need to do in order to comply with the various clauses of the Daniel Pearl Act. A much better way would be for the government, working with local NGOs, and press freedom activists, to initiate progressive legislation protecting the independence of the media and the freedom of journalists to do their jobs without any overt or covert interference. The sooner the government voluntarily initiates the needed media reform the better.