Sep 24 2009

In the Public Broadcasting Service

Published by at 8:10 am under Articles,Jordan

In the service of the community

By Daoud Kuttab

Jordan, like many other Arab countries, seems to be having a hard time understanding and dealing with the idea of public service broadcasting.

After decades of government-owned and controlled radio and television stations, under King Abdullah, Jordan began a new era of opening up the airwaves to the private sector. The Audio Visual Law enacted in 2002, which grants licence for radio and television stations to the private sector, succeeded in creating a wide range of commercial stations, but despite the licence to privatise, Jordan has failed to create a legal environment or introduce traditions that encourage and improve public service broadcasting.

Possibly the biggest problem that exists today is with the state-run radio and television, which used to be a monopoly and was given the task of providing public service programming. Jordanian taxpayers are footing the bill in the form of a broadcasting fee that is collected from every household. The electricity bill of every Jordanian house or business deducts one dinar per account every month. The broadcasting fees go directly to the treasury. Less than half of this amount is given to JRTV, which raises the rest of its needs from advertisements and sponsorships. Jordan TV is thus competing with privately owned media outlets, leaving the latter gasping for air.

The worst part of this situation could be seen by monitoring the daily prize show presented on Jordan TV immediately after iftar in Ramadan. Prizes were given to a few people based on phone calls. The problem was that these calls cost 70 piasters a minute; most callers would be kept on line for a few minutes as the answering machine would took them through a list of options before they got to vote. The process was repeated daily, with many calling hoping to win. The price of these calls is rarely advertised; often young children would call, leaving it to their families to pay tens or hundreds of dinars on their home phone bill.

State-run Jordan TV caters mostly to some of the needier Jordanians who have no access to satellite, and so the problem would be further compounded. The one-hour programme itself had no redeeming value, no cultural substance was not even entertaining. It was simple a one-hour-long advertisement for a host of companies who were giving away small prizes. Jordan TV officials said that they had no choice but to do this, since the government does not provide them with the needed income to cover the costs. Over JD15 million is said to be raised annually from the electricity bill, but less than half is actually turned over to the national radio and TV corporation, thus forcing it to cheapen its programming to attract advertisements.

On the regulatory front, the new Audio Visual Law made it possible for tens of local radio and TV stations to appear (mostly based in the capital), but it is not clear whether these stations can secure long-term sustainability. Various loopholes in the law and in practice have resulted in the clustering of advertisement income with a very small, select, group of stations because of the absence of a level playing field.

One radio station, for example, FAN radio, which is owned by the armed forces, has taken advantage of the army’s communication system and has access to broadcasting towers throughout Jordan. Another is the police station AMEN FM, which is owned by the Police Department and has therefore access to all police officers and police reports before anyone else. It has publicly refused to have the traffic reports coming from police helicopters or from its headquarters shared with other stations under the excuse that this is security information. Army and police officials say that they have a right to invest in the media just like the private sector. No answer, however, is given to whether the existence of such stations, made possible with tax payer subsidy and government waivers, is good for a competitive audiovisual industry.

In the midst of all this, little attention is given to genuine public service and community-based media. The World Bank has repeatedly shown that poverty levels have disappeared in communities that have a robust community media. In Jordan, the Audio Visual Law favours entertainment-based media rather than media that are interested in local issues. An additional 50 per cent fee is slapped on any station wishing to broadcast news or politics (which is actually much more costly than an entertainment programme).

This temporary law must be amended and the idea of penalising stations which broadcast local news and local politics has to be eliminated. On the contrary, licence fee waivers must be given to any not-for-profit radio station that is interested in public service broadcasting.

The Jordanian Cabinet has given waivers only to radio stations based in public universities, the police, the Amman Municipality station and to a station that is connected to a Royal NGOs. A municipality near Madaba set up by UNIFEM was refused a waiver because the municipality members were elected and not appointed! The government-run regulator should be supporting such public service stations and not making it difficult for them to exist and survive.

For the national TV, army and police-owned radio to have advantage in serving the public is fine and commendable. But when these same publicly owned stations seek advertising income using their advantage, there is a real problem. Free competition requires a level-playing field. It is unacceptable for one station to have income from the taxpayers, not have to pay broadcasting fees and have public advantages, and compete with other stations that have only their investment as a source of income.

The audiovisual market is fast growing and needs a fair regulatory process that takes the need of public service broadcasting, community media needs as well as the need of commercial media to survive and thrive into consideration. Leaving the process on auto pilot is simply a formula that invites corruption and makes money under the cover of public service broadcasting.

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