May 12 2016

A holistic approach to press freedom

Published by at 10:35 am under Articles,Jordan

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By Daoud Kuttab

The celebration of Press Freedom Day by Jordan’s UNESCO office by means of a debate on this year’s theme of access to information revealed the gap that exists between Jordan’s public position and the reality.

For press freedom to exist and flourish, a holistic approach is needed. Such approach must also be part of a larger human rights approach.

Producing a human rights strategy and declaring that the sky is the limit for press freedom will not do if there is no serious political will in this direction.

Examples of the gap are plenty.

According to the annual report of the Centre for Defending the Freedom of Journalists, Jordan imprisoned 10 journalists in 2015 for what they wrote and for expressing their views.

These arrests did not go unnoticed by the US State Department, which made freedom of the press and detaining journalists its number one issue in its most recently produced human rights report about Jordan.

The gap between words and reality was evident in the statements made at the debate on access to information organised by UNESCO on Sunday.

Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications, and Government Spokesperson Mohammad Momani emphasised that Jordan has gone beyond the days when information was kept secret from the public.

At the same event, however, the head of the investigative unit at the Radio Al Balad, Musab Shawabkeh, talked about many issues the government and its various ministries refused to acknowledge and said that they often refused to respond to requests for information based on Jordan’s Access to Information Law.

The Jordanian government has not responded to serious tax evasion allegations in the Panama Papers that came out against former prime minister, Ali Abu Al Ragheb, who allegedly violated Article 44 of the Constitution by setting up an offshore company three months before resigning as prime minister.

The Ministry of Justice has not responded, under FOI, to questions seeking to find out whether Abu Al Ragheb had filled out a disclosure document that by law all officials must deposit with the ministry, to be opened only if there is accusations of sudden wealth by government officials.

While the government correctly states that an amended version of the access to information law has been buried in Parliament for four years, the public knows well, (as was demonstrated when the Constitution was amended in record number of days), that mountains can be moved if there is political will.

Granting access to information will make it easier to demand more professionalism of the media, which has been a regular government demand.

There will be no more false accusations of corruption if the government is willing to free up basic information.

Jordan, which was the first Arab country to join the Open Government Partnership, is committed to voluntarily release information of importance to the public.

At a time when there are four different tendering mechanisms and the government is silent about offshore companies, the need for serious reform is crucial for a healthy and accountable government.

Journalists also have responsibilities. Demands for a complaints commission have been on the rise because of the lack of an effective mechanism to address public complaints.

In some cases, serious accusations against journalists and some, largely electronic, media of blackmailing and publishing for money taint the profession.

The Jordan Press Association (JPA), the only syndicate allowed to work, has been a closed shop benefitting mostly journalists working for the official media.

Even the JPA is now embroiled in controversy regarding conflict of interests among its board and a lack of willingness to add new electronic media journalists that the government treats like print journalists.

In this vein, the Parliament also failed the free press when it accepted a last-minute government amendment to the Cybercrime Law allowing for the detention (without court order) of electronic journalists accused of slander.

Article 11 of the Cybercrime Law allows the detention of a journalist for publishing material that the executive branch deems slanderous, even if the same material appeared in the print press.

The Press and Publications Law forbids arresting a print journalist for what he or she writes.

The digital revolution and the huge access to information of a wired and educated Jordanian public means that the need to regulate and professionalise journalism is of utmost importance.

The gap between declarations and the reality can only be closed if there is a political will for reform and an active, holistic, approach that clearly understands that the fourth estate needs to be independent of the executive branch in order to benefit the society.

Delaying and burying the head in the sand will do little to resolve this major problem.

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