AMMAN Hundreds of Jordanian journalists working in muzzled and mainly state-controlled media on Monday demanded an end to government curbs on media freedom, saying they were an obstacle to democratic transformation.
Emboldened by a wave of Arab uprisings, journalists from mainstream dailies, news websites, state television and radio joined forces in a rare show of unity against interference by officials and intelligence services.
Scores of journalists and writers rallied in a square close to several newspaper offices, chanting: "The press needs cleansing" and "We want an end to government tutelage and we want to fight corruption."
A large placard held by demonstrators read: "No to government and security hegemony over the press."
The protest was one of several in recent weeks by disgruntled workers taking advantage of unusual leniency as the authorities seek to avoid provoking the kind of upheaval that toppled veteran rulers in Tunisia and Egypt.
Scores of anti-government protests have been staged in the kingdom, including big demonstrations by the Islamist-led opposition, the country's largest party, demanding sweeping political reforms.
"The government's control over media institutions is total and not just in some papers or the state television. We want to raise the ceiling of freedoms," said Sameer Hayari, publisher of Ammonnews.net, the country's leading news website.
Hayari demanded an end to controls he said were used to cover up corruption, echoing the calls of thousands of pro-democracy protesters in Jordan since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Media campaigners demanded that the authorities divest a majority holding in the country's largest circulation daily Al-Rai and a substantial share in Ad-Dustour, and end meddling in independent dailies such as Al Ghad that makes them official mouthpieces on sensitive issues.
Ad-Dustour's chairman, Seif al-Sharif, whose newspaper was once entirely privately owned, called for an end to state ownership of stakes in dailies, a legacy of martial law and draconian press laws that stifled freedom of expression until they were lifted in 1989.
Jordan's constitution enshrines press freedom but legislation allows authorities broad powers to restrict the media. Journalists face prosecution if their reporting is deemed by military courts to disparage the armed forces or sow dissent.
Direct censorship of print media was removed years ago but journalists complain that the intelligence services, which extended their pervasive influence in public life in recent years, are in touch with editors daily.
"The talk is that there is no censorship, but in reality there is direct and daily intervention and it's one that harms the professionalism of the press and means that other views that are opposed to the official line are absent," said Saud Qubailat, the head of Jordan's Writers Association.
Successive governments justified press curbs on security grounds and the new government appointed last month, led by a former army general tied to the security establishment, has dashed liberal hopes of moving faster on promised democratic reforms.
(Writing by Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by Dominic Evans and Paul Taylor)