The Case for a Complaints Commission

Rather than resorting to the courts, Jordan desperately needs an ombudsman dedicated to settling complaints against the media.

By Osama Al Sharif

Complaints Commission

A couple of incidents last month have led to calls for the creation of a media complaints commission to handle cases of alleged ethical and professional violations. Setting up such a commission is part of the objectives of the media strategy adopted by the government a few years ago. Such commissions, which exist in various shapes and forms in advanced countries, play an important role as a bridge between individuals and groups and the media body in general. Their mission is to resolve disputes that may arise as a result of media coverage away from courts or as a last resort before legal action is taken.

Calls to set up a complaints commission in Jordan are nothing new. It’s been discussed before, but the same legal and structural obstacles seem to keep cropping up. Participants in an open dialogue with the government failed to agree on key issues such as whether the commission should be independent or part of the Jordan Press Association (JPA). This in turn raised questions about the scope of the commission’s mandate and how binding its rulings should be.

The Jordan media scene is often described as chaotic, especially with the preponderance of electronic media and the government’s attempts to regulate online news websites. The government and the JPA have tried to give a draft honor code for journalists and media practitioners some sort of authority.

Discussions about the need for a complaints commission continue but have gained momentum following the publication by Al-Ghad newspaper of a vague news item alleging that a female UN representative had filed a sexual harassment suit against a senior Jordanian official.

Social media was then inundated with posts purportedly naming the official, and it took the newspaper a few days before its chief editor categorically denied that the news item had anything to do with the named minister. She also attacked irresponsible websites that made such a claim. Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Judeh said the campaign was a form of character assassination and demanded that Al-Ghad reveal the name of the accused official.

This would have been a perfect case to bring before a complaints commission. Al-Ghad is a serious newspaper but its publication of such a vague news item that caused the controversy could be considered a violation of the ethics code. Such antics are usually associated with sensationalist tabloids.

Another incident that could have been handled by a complaints commission is the uproar over Ro’ya television’s airing of a comedy skit that was seen by some as obscene. Social media was flooded with posts calling for the closure of the station on the grounds it was part of a conspiracy to corrupt society, and the Jordan Media Commission decided to file a lawsuit against the station.

Ro’ya defended its position, arguing the program was directed towards adult viewers and that it was lampooning Arab TV stations’ choice of children’s programs. If the station was guilty of anything it was the lack of good taste. But the case proved how divisive media related issues can be in our society. Once again, this should have been a case for a complaints commission rather than the courts.

A complaints commission board should include veteran journalists, retired judges, and respected members of society. It should have a clear mandate and must be independent from governments and influential media establishments. Its main objective would be to reconcile those who believe they had been insulted or libeled with the alleged offending media outlet –all without the need to go through the courts. The commission could also implement and improve the code of ethics that journalists adhere to. Its rulings wouldn’t always prove conclusive, and if all fails then the injured party could go to court. There are different forms and types of such commissions, and in some cases there could be more than one body dealing with a specific media activity.

Media outlets function in an increasingly complex world and as a result are more likely to err. The media scene in Jordan is diverse and Jordanians aren’t bashful about expressing their opinions on public issues on social media. Sometimes, a single criticism can swell into an unjustified onslaught on a particular medium, as was the case with Ro’ya.

One small step towards setting up a complaints commission would be for the JPA to appoint an ombudsman to handle complaints concerning newspaper coverage and to try to reconcile various parties. Such a move would establish the principle of settling complaints outside of court while strengthening adherence to an ethical and professional code within most media outlets.