Restrictions on Jordanian Media Disrupt Progress, Prevent Reform

Article Summary
In Jordan, the media has long had a complicated relationship with the regime, often operating in a grey area just outside its direct control while remaining subject to its censors. Moussa Barhoumah explores the increasing restrictions being placed on media outlets, and claims that this problem a central impediment to political reform.

It is necessary to note that when talking about the media in Jordan, I am referring to all types of known media outlets, including governmental, semi-public and independent print, audio, visual and electronic media outlets. All of these outlets suffer from a crisis that chiefly revolves around the issues of freedom and professionalism.

It is also necessary to recognize that the crisis faced by the media in Jordan is no new dilemma. Writers have long noted that media in Jordan is in decline. For more than half a century, the media has constituted the most significant controversy for the state — it embodies its contradictions and its confused rhetoric.

We can say that the media has provided a suitable environment for elucidating the orientations of the state and its successive governments. These governments have suffered and continue to suffer from the phenomenon known as "mediaphobia," since the media requires transparency and full disclosure to function properly. This gives the media the power to supervise and hold the regime accountable for any irregularities or violations of their social, political and economic obligations.

The most recent international press-freedom index, issued at the end of January, revealed that Jordan has dropped by eight places in the rankings. The organization responsible for compiling this index, Reporters Without Borders, ranked Jordan 120th out of 178 countries in 2010 and 128th in 2011.

The organization attributed this decline to "police violence toward media personnel and repeated, intentional attacks against certain international news agencies."

Does this constitute an indicator of a dangerous malfunction that requires the government's urgent action?

Successive Jordanian governments have been living in a state of denial. They cling to a tradition which pushes for an “avoidance of foreign-media viewpoints in Jordan." In other words, they fear the promotion of foreign agendas. This lends credence to the aforementioned conclusion reached by Reporters Without Borders.

Allow me to further elaborate, and move beyond the abstract to the concrete:

Attacks on media outlets and government interference in their affairs are common. This means that the policies of state-owned media outlets are not subject to governmental decisions. Consequently, they have the potential to undermine the "government's total mandate." Perhaps the fact that the editor-in-chief of Al-Ra’i — one of the key newspapers in Jordan — was recently replaced for the third time this year is proof of this.

One should also never forget the attacks on activists and the pressure exerted by the security agencies and some state services on the majority of the media outlets in order to conceal the truth. The security agencies pressure them into adopting the official story and holding "unidentified elements with foreign agendas" responsible for certain incidents, demonizing them and representing them as outside, alien forces.

Meanwhile, there are continuous assaults and attacks by influential figures and officials — both identified and unidentified — on media institutions and personnel. Attacks that were carried out by hired thugs who work against the interest of the state and society have also been documented. The latest of these attacks was against the headquarters of Agence France-Presse in Jabal Amman, a neighborhood of Amman. The building's contents were destroyed and one of the employees had his life threatened. The attack was allegedly ordered by an MP who enjoys unsurpassed official support. However, there has thus far been no investigation, and none of the assailants have been brought to court.

What does this mean?

Media outlets in Jordan have been seized and are under the complete control of the security agencies and their watchful eye. Their methods of control still approach the media in a traditional manner reminiscent of totalitarian regimes. In totalitarian countries, there is only one truth, and an obsession with absolutism dominates the media. News and events are filtered, facts are falsified and offenders are terrorized and expelled.

The security apparatus continues to exercise full authority over various media outlets in a multitude of ways. Sometimes they employ soft power. However, in the end the result is the same: these are interventions that limit the freedom of journalists and impact their creativity. The authorities treat them as children unaware of the "country's interests.” They are then forcibly “retrained” by somebody who outlines these interests for them. It’s the Jordanian version of the Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists).

We are still at the stage of patriarchal rule: the central state is the one providing information or preventing access to it based on a convoluted formula.

The media is created by journalists, and security is created by security officials and policemen. The succession of governments should be held accountable for this anomaly, because they disrupted the equilibrium between state institutions and media outlets by controlling the means of expression and muzzling anyone who criticizes the state. These governments have transformed independent and private-owned media outlets into mouthpieces that praise and glorify government decisions, even unpopular and unjust ones that disrupt the reform process and flirt with corruption.

Some wonder why people no longer trust in the state media. The answer to this question does not lie in the inability of those employed in the media industry to provide nuanced, professional viewpoints, but is rather due to the lack of political will to reform the state media — and media in general. Even if politicians have decided to do so, they are taking baby steps invisible to the naked eye. They employ outdated techniques that do not put the right person in the right place.

State media outlets lack professionalism in presenting different points of view. They also lack creativity: the state media still shuts out other opinions, especially those of the opposition. It therefore seems clear that they are not yet enlightened enough to respect the viewer’s mind and push Jordanian life toward development and progress.

Using their power and cunning, certain state institutions, sought to "legalize" terrorizing and silencing journalists by enacting anti-freedom laws. The last of these was Article 33, a draft law that was amended to become a law called the Anti-Corruption Commission, which restricts freedom of the press in dealing with people and institutions associated with corruption cases.

Supposedly, this article was created to protect the people from the influence of the media, especially certain websites, which now exceed 200.

Some people have rightly accused these websites of crossing the limits, provoking people, abandoning professional standards and resorting to extortion, defamation and slander as a way to make money. However, this does not justify sanctions against the media. The Press and Publications Law, as well as the penal code, already provides for punishment for “publication crimes" which include slander and defamation.

In my opinion, reforming the media is the starting point for reforming the regime.

Found in: violence against journalists, violence, media freedom, media, king hussein, freedom of the press

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