Jul 09 2009

Back on the air

Published by at 10:29 am under Articles

following appeared in Jordan Times today July 9

By Daoud Kuttab

The gavel-to-gavel broadcast of the Jordanian Parliament was back on the air on June 7. Radio Al Balad (formerly AmmanNet), an independent community radio, succeeded in providing the public with an unfiltered version of the House of Representatives meeting. The return of live broadcasting is, however, nothing but natural.

Arab parliaments are rarely ever broadcast live. The voice of the executive branch in Arab countries is much louder than that of the legislative branch.

I understood the domination of the executive branch over the legislative back in 1997. I was running a small educational TV station in Ramallah, out of Al Quds University, when Parliament began deliberating very close to our studios. We began broadcasting gavel-to-gavel sessions of the Palestinian Legislative Council only to be jammed by the state-run Palestinian TV. When we made a fuss about that, on May 22, 1997, I was arrested and held for seven days. The night before my arrest, our station had broadcast a session of the PLC discussing a parliamentary report about corruption with the Palestinian Authority.

Three years ago, and in a totally new setting, I tried to do the same thing in Jordan. The speaker of the Parliament agreed to a request from AmmanNet radio to allow live broadcast of the Parliament. AmmanNet, which years earlier had been broadcasting on the Internet, had just received an FM licence and the broadcast provided a badly needed public service that many members of Parliament welcomed. Until then, the official Jordanian media covered the Parliament by providing daily short pieces and weekly roundups, all reflecting the government’s point of view.

One member of Parliament said that the official media would often broadcast or publish the parliamentary answer of the prime minister without ever mentioning what the question was and which MP asked it.

Live broadcasting of the House of Representatives was short lived. The rise of energy costs in the winter of 2007 produced a wave of public anger at parliamentarians for their routine approval of fuel price hikes. One of the comments on the station’s website, later repeated on radio, criticised the parliamentarians’ indifference towards the public in an offensive manner. The insult angered the Parliament speaker who, along with the Audio Visual Council, sued the radio station and its owner. The live broadcast which was not critical was also taken off the air. A public apology was made on the website and on radio, but it failed to appease the speaker who, along with the Audio Visual Council, insisted on going to court.

The trial against the radio station lasted more than a year with the court ruled against the station and its manager, fining each JD10,000. Upon appeal, the case was thrown out and the fines cancelled.

Appeals to the Parliament speaker failed to get the broadcast back on the air, despite promises by the speaker that he was willing to forgive and forget. During two meetings with the station’s manager and chair, the speaker promised to reinstate the broadcast, but nothing happened.

Various appeals by members of the Parliament also failed to produce any change. Responses varied from claiming that the broadcast cannot be reinstated while the case is in session to attempts to politically criticise the station’s manager. Even at the height of the conflict between the Parliament and the established media, the speaker refused to allow broadcasting while, at the same time, criticising the print media for reducing the space MPs get in print.

The conflict with the press included a temporary boycott of the Parliament by four dailies and public criticism by weeklies and news websites. Radio Al Balad and the AmmanNet website continued regular coverage of the Parliament.

Live broadcasts returned without the direct help of the Parliament. On July 6, 2009, two and a half years after being taken off the air, Radio Al Balad was able to broadcast live the afternoon session of Parliament. The radio broadcast came thanks to an initiative by the Parliament to broadcast the sessions on the Internet. Radio Al Balad was able to pick up the Internet signal and broadcast it on the air, giving the Jordanian public the chance to hear what their elected representatives had to say. A satellite television broadcast is also planned to happen soon.

The TV broadcasts have been subcontracted to ABS, a Jordanian television service provider who is renting the Parliament space on one of Nile Sat’s frequencies. No mention has been made of the cost, although the deputy speaker of Parliament said that it will be over JD100,000 a year.

Without proper campaign it will be difficult to get Jordanians to tune in to a frequency that is unknown and that has no other programme. No mention has been made as to how the tender was made, and who will be paying for it. The first session broadcast on the air, however, was short lived. At 5:45pm Speaker Abdul Hadi Majali closed the session because quorum was lost 90 minutes after its start. The topic that was being discussed was a special law about Petra Governorate.

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