The winds of the Arab Spring blew early on across Jordan, reshaping the landscape of the Jordanian street, which had not witnessed any movements for many years. As a result, several popular and youth movements emerged in less than a year. They gained prominence alongside the traditional organizational frameworks that had been demanding comprehensive reform.
The media, which had long been under the control of the regime, was not far from the Spring winds. During the protests that erupted in early 2011, news websites acted as a barricade that sheltered the people whenever they overstepped the red lines — which they often did. On the other hand, the official and semi-official media outlets were forced to change their positions — at least partially — to lose the stigma of their alleged “collaboration.”
The increase in media freedom during the Arab Spring was addressed in a special report issued by the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) in May 2011. According to the report, 15.4% of journalists find that media freedom has increased significantly, compared to the nearly 0% who thought so in previous similar reports.
The recognition of the progress in media freedom was accompanied by an acknowledgement of the key role of the new media, as 83% of the journalists acknowledged this fact despite their previous criticism of the news websites and demands that they adhere to a code of professional conduct.
CDFJ Executive Director Nidal Mansour hailed the positive impact of the Arab Spring on Jordanian media. He told As-Safir that “the Jordanian media would not have achieved this leap had there been no popular protests in the Kingdom.” According to Mansour, the popular movements supported and reinforced the media.
However, he was not very optimistic about the impact of the Arab Spring on the state-run media outlets, saying “The state media, unlike the new media, has not yet been affected by the spring of revolutions.” Mansour noted that the freedom indices for the state radio and television channel and the official news agency Petra have all dropped, as these institutions are still subject to official censorship.
Mansour praises the decline of self-censorship by journalists, interference of the security apparatuses and frequency of media blackouts, but he is fearful of an emerging trend where media personalities are targeted. The number of physical attacks on members of the media reached a record high during 2011. The report registered 160 violations, ranging from beatings to death threats. This phenomenon is described by Mansour as “thuggery against the media,” which is similar to the “thuggery” practiced against the popular movements.
Writer and media expert Lamis Andouni defends the virtues that the Arab Spring has bestowed on Arab media. She said, “The Arab uprisings eliminated many barriers and created more space for journalistic freedom, despite the will of the government and intelligence apparatuses to do the opposite.”
According to Andouni, the freedom created by these new news websites provided a space for the popular movements and their demands until they became places to refer to for documentation of these movements. On the other hand, Andouni noted that in some cases, the websites' clear bias toward the popular movements show a lack of professionalism.
When security authorities began to arrest journalists, this bias turned into an alliance. As a result, youth and popular protest demonstrations were launched in various governorates to demand the release of the detained journalists. In June 2011, Alaa al-Fazza, a journalist and publisher for the blog khaberjo.net, was arrested and tried by the State Security Court on charges of opposing the regime. Fazza was also wanted because he was connected to a report about a campaign that demands the reinstatement of Prince Hamzah Bin-al-Hussein as crown prince instead of Prince Hussein Bin-Abdullah. The activists said that they support Fazza to repay their debts to him.
The situation repeated itself with the mid-April 2012 arrest of journalist Jamal al-Muhtasib, a publisher for the website GerasaNews.com.
According to Andouni, a fierce war is underway in the decision-making centers over the reality of the Jordanian media, a war which is affecting the struggle for freedom of the press. She says that “due to the conflict between the authorities and journalists, it will all depend on the strength of the movements, their impact on the people and the journalists’ determination and ability to protect their gains.”
The conflict was clearly revealed when Minister of Communication and Information Rakan al-Majali — spokesperson for the Awn al-Khasawneh government that resigned last April — proposed syndicate reforms to the press that were described by a majority of journalists as “progressive.”
The reforms called for “vetoing” the arrest, fining and trying of journalists at the state security court. Instead, on issues related to print and publication, the journalists’ trials would be held in civil courts.
Bassel al-Akkour, one of the first online journalists in Jordan and publisher of the website Jo24.net, expressed a pessimistic view on the condition of the media, even amid the Arab Spring. According to Akkour, “The media is in the worst condition ... Security infiltration still plagues media freedom, especially since the bar of popular demands has been raised against those who are usually criticized.” Akkour revealed to As-Safir that “some in the decision-making centers believe that the media creates the event, and they seek to tighten their grip on the media to repress the movements.”
Jihad Abu-Baydar, head of the media-freedom committee in the Jordanian journalists' syndicate, says that the media intifada will not fade even if the popular movements do. He advises the government to make a smart decision and abandon its attempts to stifle media freedom, as otherwise it will find itself faced with a backlash.
Abu-Baydar supports Akkour’s view that the media is responsible for the escalation of popular movements. The two do not deny their support for one another, as they both are aiming for full freedom for the private and state media.