Jan 20 2010

Jordanian Orphanages, the Minister of Social Affairs and the Media

Published by at 5:53 am under Articles,Jordan

By Daoud Kuttab
Orphanages are notorious the world over for being a very sensitive place. Losing one or both parents is a shocking and highly emotional condition. Having the same young parentless children living away from the warmth of a natural home produces even more trauma and tends to make such children more vulnerable.
It is therefore highly troubling when one discovers adults and even fellow orphans physically and sexually abuse such defenseless children with very few deterrents. This was some of the conclusions that a pair of Jordanian investigative journalists working for months under the supervision of the ARIJ team discovered. The report filling two full pages appeared in the independent daily Al Ghad on December 28, 2009. Reports supervised by Arij are screened and approved by a competent lawyer before being presented for publication.
The troubling report was based on hours of interviews with 20 present or former inmates in Jordan’s 27 homes (four of which are run by the government). It was also based on a survey of 50 persons who have gone through the system, sworn and signed testimonies from abused children, medical records and documentation collaborating these allegations. Many of the allegation including one case of death due to negligence, beatings, sexual harassments and rape took place in past years. And while the system has improved there is clearly much to be learned from the previous and some of the continuing problems facing these helpless children.
A survey conducted with 50 randomly chosen graduates of these orphanages showed that 91% stated that they were beaten and 89% noted that they were cursed at and verbally abused by workers in these orphanages.
Research into the educational level of these workers was also revealing. Of the 287 individuals working with these children 38 don’t have high school certificate, 43 only have a high school diploma while the others have a college education. In a survey of 25 residents of the Madaba governmental orphanage a total of 15 gave written testimonies that they have been systematically beaten. The legislative and administrative systems don’t provide for adequate remedies for many of these problems.
These well documented detailed cases, along with replies from experts, reports conducted by governmental and nongovernmental agencies and NGOs were quoted in the investigative expose. Replies from the pertinent individuals including responses from the Minister of Social Affairs Hala Latuf were give fair and appropriate space. In the report, the minister admits to problems in previous years and she details how her administration is dealing with these problems including changing some of the directors such as the director of the Madaba governmental orphanage. She denied however that the abuses have continued in her tenure.
Al Ghad daily which has an agreement with Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalists (ARIJ) received the article and sat on it for five days before publishing it on the 25th of December. Ironically, the publication day was three days after all ministers in the Samir Rifai government signed a code of conduct regarding relations with the media which guarantees the independence of media, commits not to carry out neither enticement nor pressure to influence the workings of the media.
These commitments, however, seem to have been forgotten once the minister and others in the government saw the two page spread. She fired a letter to the newspaper asking for all the evidence including the names of those accused of abuse.
Staffers at the newspaper were taken aback and started to try to obtain the original documents from the journalists who worked on the ARIJ sponsored investigation. A meeting was arranged and the various documents that were the basis of the expose were shown to the editors. An agreement was made to have the ARIJ lawyer draw up a letter that can summarise that all information is truthful and based on properly collected evidence without disclosing the sources. This, however, was not satisfactory. The minister responding to a column in Al Raij on January 4th and later speaking on Jordan TV stated that she has asked for all the evidence from Al Ghad and that she is waiting for them. Al Ghad demanded the evidence and after many meetings with lawyers and journalists present it became clear that the editor of the independence daily were not interested only in seeing the evidence but wanted to keep it with the idea of transferring some or all of it to the ministry. The continuous demands to keep and not just to see the evidence worried the journalists and caused them to clamp down on letting the editors of al Ghad keep it.
The journalists involved in the investigation were worried that if exposed these vulnerable orphans would be unable to withstand the pressures from the ministry to change their statements. The buzz inside the ministry was one of trying to figure out who was the source of the information and who had signed the testimonies rather than one in which the ministry is trying to resolve the problem. Social affairs officials were asking anyone coming to the ministry if they were the source for the article. Rumors were also flying from the ministry that the journalists had paid the orphans 100JD to make up the allegations.
Ironically officials from the company registra made a phone call to the office of ARIJ asking for details of the NGOs registration papers under the guise that they wanted to make sure that the not for profit status of ARIJ was ok. A staff person working for the ministry of social affairs also made the rounds to Al Ghad and other media outlets saying he was an orphan who felt insulted and humiliated by the article. He never told media outlets that he was actually a worker at the ministry.
The tug of war peeked on January 16 when the journalists and ARIJ were given an ultimatum. Either surrender all the documentation including written and taped testimonies or Al Ghad will suspend all relations with ARIJ. The journalists and Arij refused to allow such evidence to be kept overnight at the newspaper and Al Ghad carried out its threat writing in a page two article that ended by stating that al Ghad apologizes to the ministry and to orphans who may have felt humiliated by the article
Fostering an independent and vibrant media requires clear protection of sources and a special law protecting whistle blowers. The attitude of the minister of social affairs and her staff has been unfortunate and gives negative rather than positive signs about the attitudes of the Samir Rifai government regarding freedom of the press and government’s commitment not to interfere in media’s independence.
* The author is the chairman of the board of the Amman-based NGO, Arab reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ)

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