The caller on the phone, a close friend, was frantic.
“They are going to destroy us,” she said.
After calming her down, my friend who is a senior adviser at a local commercial TV station, said that several of their staff are leaving to work for a new station that the government is setting up.
“How can that happen, we invested in these people trained them and we pay them well. Furthermore what is the government doing creating yet another TV station, doesn’t it have enough with the existing stations it owns; and now it will take away the little advertising we have worked hard to attract,” she was saying.
I quietly explained to her that there is nothing one can do about the poaching problem, but that a real problem is the mistake that publicly funded television is allowed to broadcast advertising, which clearly violates the need for a level playing field.
The next day, my friend and I, and others, were invited by UNESCO to a celebration of Press Freedom Day held on the premises of the Royal Film Commission.
Half way through the event, the minister of state for media affairs spoke about the new TV station.
“It will be a truly public service station,” he assured those gathered, although he refused to say if it will refrain from broadcasting advertising.
UNESCO defines public service broadcasting as “broadcasting made, financed and controlled by the public, for the public”. The organisation further says that it “is neither commercial, nor state-owned” and must be “free from political interference and pressure from commercial forces”.
Jordan Radio and Television (JRTV), which owns and runs multiple TV and radio stations, is funded by tax payers and advertisers. One dinar is deducted from the electricity bill from every home, office or factory every month. JRTV also gets further tax payer funding from the general budget.
The problem is in the way this money is spent.
JRTV has an exaggerated payroll, made up mostly of people appointed by the government, often as part of political patronage. Although on paper JRTV is supposed to have an independent board, the government directly appoints its director general as well as many of its senior managers.
UNESCO says that if public service broadcasting works properly, “citizens are informed, educated and also entertained. When guaranteed with pluralism, programming diversity, editorial independence, appropriate funding, accountability and transparency, public service broadcasting can serve as a cornerstone of democracy”.
When a government minister says that the new station will be truly a “public service” one, this is an indirect admission that the current station, which employs over 2,000 and costs tens of millions of dinars, is not.
If the new TV station wants to apply international standards, it is important that at least two conditions are met. First, the government must stay away from owning and running this station so as to satisfy the “must not be state owned” condition, and that it is “controlled by the public and for the public”.
An independent board representing a spectrum of Jordanians should manage this station, totally divorced from government pressure.
Second, and since public service broadcast, according to the UNESCO definition, is not commercial and must not be “influenced by commercial pressures”, the audio visual regulator must ensure that it does not deform the commercial broadcasting field by competing with commercial stations through cutting into the already small advertising cake.
The problem with asking this of the regulator, however, is that Jordan does not have an independent regulatory board. Media, both print and audio visual, are regulated by a government-appointed director who is accountable to the same minister of media affairs who wants to start this new station using public funds.
A much better and more efficient path to creating a truly public service broadcasting station would be to address the deformities at JRTV, which will no doubt again be taking away the lion’s share of advertising in the upcoming Ramadan season.
And instead of creating yet another satellite station, effort and support must be given to create local terrestrial digital stations once the migration from analogue to digital takes place in the coming months.
My friend’s worry about the future of commercial broadcasting in Jordan is real and it will unlikely be resolved as long as the government continues to be an active player in a field it is not traditionally known to do well in: the media business.
Governments should govern independently and fairly, representing the entire population. They should not try to govern using media outlets that are intended to be used by the public and for the public, and not as a government mouthpiece.