Dec 24 2009

Media freedoms under the new administration

Published by at 11:28 am under Articles,Jordan

By Daoud Kuttab

Reforming and regulating Jordan’s media appears to be one of the priorities of the administration of Samir Rifai who is considered a friend of many Jordanian journalists, editors and publishers.

As in all efforts that seek greater freedom for the press, two global issues must always be remembered. One is that press people abhor legislation, no matter how reformist it might appear. Global press freedom defenders repeatedly call for less legislation and more self regulation. The other is that governments, no matter what their motivation is, are never very good at producing quality and professional media content. These principles might appear to leave very little for the Rifai’s administration to work with, but the reality is much different.

As a thoughtful article written by a colleague showed, the Jordanian Government can do much to improve the media industry without creating additional laws. Instead, a number of distortions in the existing Press and Publications Law, and the Audio Visual Law need to be removed.

The government, said the journalist, continues to own two major newspapers, controls the state radio and television and showing favouritism to certain media outlets, training centres and journalists. The latter has been well-documented by research conducted by Oraib Rintawi’s Al Quds centre; his study showed that 65 per cent of Jordanian journalists received government jobs, grants, gifts, customs waivers or other gifts. Half of the Jordanian opinion writers and senior editors stated that they were subject to different forms of soft containment by both government officials, the legislature or the private sector.

To be fair, the interest that the prime minister and the minister following the media showed to this particular article is welcomed. At least three important laws include obvious distortions. Some of the distortions in Jordan’s Press and Publications Law include the absence of clear clauses forbidding the detention of journalists for their opinions. Although His Majesty King Abdullah has publicly called for an end to imprisonment of journalists, this has not yet been encoded in the law. The Press and Publications Law also includes a wide range of taboo areas, which can have many interpretations. Any news item or opinion piece that criticises leaders of Arab or other friendly states, shakes confidence in national currency or is considered against national unity is banned.

The Jordan Radio and Television Law also failed to remove the distortions that allowed this media outlet to become a truly public broadcaster. The government continues to levy a monthly JD1 TV licence fee on every household as part of the electricity bill. However, only half of this money actually is given to JRTV, which has been encouraged to raise funds to cover for the deficit by way of advertising.

This reflects failure of being transparent with taxpayer money and causes distortions for not allowing all media to have a level playing field.

The third law with many distortions is the Jordan Press Association Law, which makes membership for any journalist mandatory, even though the JPA does not include electronic journalists, but only journalists and media owners.

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 in the hands of a very small, select, group of stations, again 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 therefore has 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 taxpayer 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.

Sources within the new administration point to the fact that the most urgent issue that needs to be dealt with is the feeling that the government has lost control over the tens of news websites that mushroomed in the last two years. While some of these websites fall within the category of soft containment, the free nature of attacks, usually in the anonymous talk back sections, has become a source of worry, as is the lack of professionalism exhibited by some website owners who use their new-found powers to blackmail institutions and private companies to advertise on their sites or else unleash a series of attacks.

The government is considering either adding websites to the Press and Publications Law or make a new law dealing with Internet issues. Both are unlikely to deal with the problem and will more likely curtail honest and important public discussion. What is needed is for the government to totally stop its soft containment of some of these websites and to encourage some sort of self regulation in this direction.

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