Jordan court passes jail terms on five journalists

AMMAN, March 18 (Reuters) - A Jordanian court handed down jail terms of three months each on five newspaper journalists, including two prominent editors, for contempt of court and defamation, the head of the press association said on Tuesday.

Tareq al-Momani, head of the group that represents press interests, said a court convicted two editors and three journalists from the leading newspapers, Ad-Dustour, Al-Arab AlYawm and al-Al Rai, on March 13 for publishing offences.

They remain free pending appeal.

Journalists saw the move as a step back from the relative freedom enjoyed by the Jordanian press where some privately-funded publications seek to encourage open discussion of sensitive political issues.

"We look with concern at the passing of these sentences in opinion cases which reflects negatively on freedom of the press," Momani told Reuters.

Four of the journalists in Ad-Dustour and Al-Arab AlYawn were indicted after a complaint by the Higher Judicial Council for "contempt of court" for publishing a commentary on a ruling it passed on the nationality law. The Council, the top legal body, said the ruling was immune from criticism.

Another Al-Rai journalist received a similiar three-month jail term for defamation after publishing on the Web a commentary that criticised a Jordanian official.

"These sentences are a setback to press freedoms and do not serve the trend towards liberalising the press," said Osama al-Sherif, who was sentenced as Ad-Dustour editor for allowing publication of the article on the court ruling.

Jordanian journalists have been campaigning for years for the abolition of prison terms for publishing offences.

Western aid groups say domestic laws in most Arab states severely restrict the media and freedom of expression. (Writing by Suleiman al-Khalidi; editing by Richard Balmforth)