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After hundreds of teachers arrested, coronavirus is just the start of Jordan's back-to-school challenges.

A woman raises a Jordanian national flag as she stands amidst public school teachers demonstrating and demanding pay raises, at the Professional Associations Complex in Jordan's capital Amman on October 3, 2019. KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty

Amman — Jordan is facing even more uncertainty than most countries as it prepares to send children back to school. A simmering labor dispute saw hundreds of teachers jailed this summer, and there's a risk that, just as the coronavirus crisis sees thousands of kids transfer into the public school system, it could be hobbled again.

Jordan's largely impoverished population has been slammed by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic over the summer, but the nation's biggest teachers union was locked in a standoff with the government before the virus even struck.

Late last year, the 140,000-strong Jordan Teachers Syndicate led a month-long strike over public school teachers' salaries and benefits. It was the most disruptive public sector strike Jordan has ever seen.

Armed with new emergency defense laws implemented to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the government decided to freeze all public sector pay rises — including a pay hike that had been agreed to break the standoff with the teachers. 

As the syndicate threatened another nationwide strike, the government accused the teachers of having a "stubborn attitude." Fearing more strikes and protests, officials banned the union from operating for two years, closed its branches across the country, arrested its leadership and appointed a caretaker management team. 

Jordanian Teachers Protest Shutdown Of Union
Jordanian police close the streets around the prime minister's office on July 29, 2020 in Amman, Jordan, after the arrest of senior members of the Jordan Teachers Syndicate, an opposition-run union that became a force for political dissent. Jordan PIx/Getty

Teachers took to the streets in protest, but the government used its new powers to ban public gatherings. Riot police chased protesters all across the kingdom, arresting hundreds of teachers in the process and accusing them of violating anti-virus laws on public gatherings.

The actual number of arrests has been difficult to gauge because the government imposed a gag order on Jordanian media outlets, banning all reporting on the story. In a report released this month, the U.N. called the government's response "a serious violation of the rights to freedom of association and expression." 

Most of the teachers have now been released, including members of the syndicate, but the government's handling of the crisis has eroded some of the trust it gained through effective handling of the COVID epidemic. 

Officials have said they're hoping for a "smooth and undisruptive" school year, but that may prove a tall order.

"To protect public freedoms"

Strict, early measures and repeated lockdowns imposed since March have helped keep the virus from running rampant across Jordan. To date, only 1,639 cases have been confirmed, with only 14 deaths among the kingdom's 10 million inhabitants.

In March, King Abdullah II issued a royal decree that granted his appointed prime minister, Omar Razzaz, sweeping powers to counter the virus, including the power to curtail citizens' basic rights. The king said the laws should be implemented, "in a way that it will not impede on the civil and political freedoms of Jordanians, and to protect public freedoms and freedom of speech." 

Razzaz pledged that the law would be used to the "narrowest extent" possible, but then came the crackdown on the teachers syndicate, the mass-arrests and the silencing of the nation's journalists on the topic.

Nidal Mansour, founder of the Amman-based Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ), presents his report, "Under Curfew," at an event in the Jordanian capital on June 29, 2020. CDFJ

"We are against any gag order, whether issued by the government or the judiciary," Nidal Mansour, founder of the Amman-based Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ), told CBS News. "We believe such orders impose restrictions on press freedoms and the right of the society to know."

The CDFJ published a detailed report in June, titled "Under Curfew," highlighting violations of press freedom in the country. Mansour said the report contains "clear proof that the emergency laws have restricted the freedom of press and expression."

One high-profile incident highlighted in the report was the April 9 arrest of Fares Sayegh, the owner of a private television channel, and its news director Mohammed al-Khalidi. The popular channel had aired a report featuring laborers complaining about their inability to work during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

Fares Sayegh (right), the owner of Jordan's Ro'ya Television Channel, is seen in a May 19, 2019 photo with the network's former News Director, Mohammed al-Khalidi. Both men were briefly detained after the channel aired a report critical of the Jordanian government's anti-coronavirus measures. Ro'ya Television

Both men were detained for a couple days and charged under anti-terrorism laws with "endangering the health of Jordanians." 

Mansour said incidents like that have had a chilling effect on journalists: "They got scared. No one likes to be imprisoned."

"Jordan's cynical exploitation of arbitrary measures such as gag orders and arrests to silence journalists is only the latest in a series of restrictions on press freedoms in the country," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Back to school

Huda Ahmad's children are getting ready to go back to school, but for Salah, 11, and Zeid, 7, this academic year will be different. Like thousands of parents, Huda has moved her children out of private schooling and into the free public school system.

"Corona has changed our lives. I have a lot of expenses and salaries went down. I can't keep on paying," Huda, a private school teacher herself, told CBS News. 

Some Florida schools return to in-person classes despite COVID-19 outbreaks 03:48

Her children won't be on their own. The government says some 47,000 students have transferred from private schools into Jordan's already-crowded public school system this year. Next week, Salah and Zeid will join more than two million students heading back to schools across the country. 

As students prepare to go back to class — many more of them in public schools — and the country braces for a possible second wave of COVID infections, Mansour said he wasn't optimistic about the relationship between the teachers and the government, or the prospects for a "smooth" school year. 

He said that while the government may be flexible in dealing with teachers, the people who are really in charge of the country have "never accepted the idea of a teacher's syndicate." 

"The battle is still open and ongoing," Mansour said. 

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