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Government refuses to return seized videotape of interview, cites "national interests" and concern over "harming" Saudi Arabia

(CPJ/IFEX) - The following is a 23 April 2007 CPJ press release:

In Jordan, security agents seize interview with former crown prince

New York, April 23, 2007 - The Committee to Protect Journalists protests the Jordanian government's seizure of a taped Al-Jazeera interview with former crown prince Hassan bin Talal last week.

Ghassan Benjeddou, Al-Jazeera's bureau chief in Beirut, told CPJ that Jordanian intelligence officers stopped his producer at Amman's Queen Alia Airport on Wednesday, shortly after the interview. They proceeded to confiscate the videotape of the interview, as well as several photographs taken of Prince Hassan during the interview.

Benjeddou said he did not publicize what happened until Saturday, when his show "Open Dialogue" aired, because he had hoped to reach a compromise with Jordanian authorities that would allow him to get the tape back.

In the interview conducted by Benjeddou, Hassan spoke critically of Saudi Arabia and U.S. policies in the Middle East, the journalist told CPJ. Citing a U.S. report, the prince said a Saudi official was financing Sunni militants to confront the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. Al-Jazeera identified the official as Prince Bandar bin Sultan, secretary-general of Saudi Arabia's National Security Council, The Associated Press reported. Hassan also criticized Saudi Arabia for holding political negotiations in the holy city of Mecca, home to Islam's holiest site, Masjid al-Haram.

Benjeddou told CPJ that Hassan was critical of Arab regimes cooperating with the United States in targeting Iran and warned that any war would be a "catastrophe" and would lead to "100 years of conflict." He criticized leaders in the Arab world for inciting sedition among Sunnis and Shiites. He also said that American policies are creating tension in the region and that the Arab world needs to solve its problems without external influence.

On Saturday, Benjeddou used his program to discuss press freedom in the Arab world and discuss what happened to him. He invited Nasser Judeh, the chief Jordanian government spokesman, to comment. The Jordan Times reported that Judeh told Al-Jazeera that Prince Hassan is "an intellectual whose views are respected the world over," but "there are national interests that should be protected."

The Jordan Times quoted Judeh saying "we cannot afford to have any misinterpretation of Jordan's stand at this delicate stage," adding, "after all, remember that we live in the Middle East where media outlets are sometimes employed to serve political purposes."

"This is a flagrant act of censorship that makes a mockery of King Abdullah's repeated statements in support of press freedoms," CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. "We call on Jordanian authorities to return this tape immediately."

Benjeddou told CPJ he immediately called Jordanian government officials demanding the return of the videotape. He said he was told that the Jordanian authorities do not have any problems with Al-Jazeera, but security authorities deemed sections of the interview to be harmful to a sister nation, namely Saudi Arabia. Benjeddou asked them to return the tape, adding that he was willing to discuss a compromise and accommodate the Jordanian authorities as much as possible once the tapes were returned.

Jordanian authorities informed Benjeddou two days later that they would not return the videotape. He said they denied his request for another interview with Hassan but said an interview in the future may be possible.

Benjeddou told CPJ that he remains perplexed because the interview was not with an Al-Qaeda member or controversial figure. "We did not attack Jordan; we did an interview with Prince Hassan," he said.

CPJ is a New York-based, independent, nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide. For more information, visit http://www.cpj.org

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