Not Free Enough

Sadly, there was no cause for Jordan to celebrate World Press Freedom Day.

By Osama Al Sharif

Last month, Jordan, along with most countries, marked World Press Freedom Day. We didn’t rate well. The Freedom House Index placed Jordan 155 out of 199 countries, with the general label for the Kingdom being “not free,” the Internet considered “partly free,” and the press “not free.” That’s quite an indictment for a country whose top officials continue to brag about press freedom and how freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Constitution.

The Amman-based Center for the Protection and Freedom of Journalists (CPFJ) issued a statement on the occasion confirming that journalists in Jordan and the rest of the Arab world continue to suffer from various kinds of violations, such as denial of access to information, censorship, and harassment by government agencies. This is in addition to cases of incarceration in publication-related charges. Last year’s edition of the CPFJ’s annual State of Media Freedom in Jordan report claimed that over 70 percent of journalists admitted they had been victims of containment attempts.

On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day top UN officials issued a statement saying that “freedom of expression and press freedom are critical to the successful implementation of good governance and human rights around the world.” They reaffirmed that both freedoms were “essential” for the shaping of a new global sustainable development agenda.

The fact that Jordan is labeled “not free” in the Freedom House Index is depressing. In April, Jordanian journalist Jamal Abdul Nabi was incarcerated for publishing an article online criticizing the Saudi-led air strikes against Yemen. He was accused of “disturbing relations with a foreign state.” A top Muslim Brotherhood leader was also sentenced to 18 months in prison by the State Security Court on a similar charge. He had published an opinion on his personal Facebook page criticizing the UAE’s position on the Muslim Brotherhood.

The former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Information Marwan Muasher decried the state of Jordan’s media freedom in an article he published in Al-Ghad daily last month. He wrote that even when the Ministry of Information was abrogated in 2003, other government organs took over its responsibilities and continued to exert pressure on the press and other media outlets. He also wrote that he had recommended establishing independent boards for Jordan TV, radio, and the official news agency and that the government should sell its shares in the local daily press. None of these recommendations was adopted, even when the Royal Committee for the National Agenda made similar suggestions in 2006.


Mixed Signals

The Jordan Times published an article recently which said the government is planning to launch an independent TV channel, replacing previous plans to open a third channel affiliated with the Jordan Radio and Television Corporation (JRTVC).

“All I can say is that the Jordan Radio and Television Law was amended to enable the government to establish a private TV station,” JRTVC Director General Ramadan Rawashdeh told the newspaper. Noting the new channel will offer public service broadcasting, he said it would be fully independent from the JRTVC.

It’s not really clear how this would work in practice. Public broadcasting is usually financed by the public for the sake of the public. To insert the adjective “private” as a qualifier is confusing. It’s not understood how this new private-public TV station would be financed at a time when the JRTVC is in bad shape due to the lack of funding. Another question is how truly free this new TV channel would be, especially at a time when official broadcast outlets have been unable to raise the bar and present themselves as more than just government mouthpieces.


Judging Opinion Polls

A new poll carried out by the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies (CSS) found that up to 88 percent of Jordanians consider poverty, unemployment, and price hikes the biggest challenges facing the Kingdom. No news there, you might say. We’ve always known the economy tops the list of main concerns for Jordanians. The issue is how does the government respond to these genuine concerns?

On the other hand, Jordanians expressed satisfaction with the performance of security bodies, with 95 percent saying they feel safe at their residences during the day and 90 percent feeling safe at their residence at night. This supports the accepted wisdom that Jordan is one of the safest countries in the region.

However, over 80 percent consider refugees a source of danger to the Kingdom, while 77 percent said migrant workers pose a threat to the safety of the community.

In contrast, another CSS poll on the popularity of the current government was covered in different ways by the local press. Addustour and Al-Ghad said that the popularity of Abdullah Ensour had risen from last year and the public confidence in his government was up. But the newly-renegade Al-Rai, which has an axe to grind with the government, somehow read the poll results differently and concluded the exact opposite.