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Between the lines

As a (somewhat late) tribute to World Press Freedom Day (May 3rd),  I decided to post here an English translation of a story of mine on the state of press freedom in Jordan. Originally published in Hebrew in The Seventh Eye journal on February 2009, it’s highly important to note that lots has happened since then and therefore a number of things mentioned in the article are not up-to-date. Nevertheless, I believe this story touches some of the issues at the heart of the democratic debate in Jordan, providing a glimpse at the general framework of the role of the media in contemporary Jordan – and not least important, despite obvious differences, brings up a number press freedom issues which also exist in other countries today.

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Step by step, though crippling, Jordan is advancing towards healthier press. Meanwhile, the Jordanian media enjoy a relatively broad leeway, that is also constantly growing, but with very well-defined boundaries. Government officials, who prefer pulling the string the other way, don’t spare any measures to narrow down the steps of those armed with pens. The journalists, obviously, aren’t content with the current situation and often tackle the issue in their writing, but are also strict on not infringing the status quo.

Already in the Jordanian constitution, the freedom of speech and the freedom of press are secured, “within the limits of the law”. Additionally, a number of legislative amendments during 2007 apprised true progress: constituting the right of access to information, annulment of prison punishments for offenses directly related to journalistic tasks and abolishment of the demand for handing in materials to censorship prior to their publishing.

The reforms, led by King Abdullah mainly thanks to his openness and western orientation, brought the different international NGOs advocating for freedom of speech and freedom of the press to see Jordan as a country allowing its journalists more independence than its Arab neighbors – Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria – even if the situation is still far from that in Lebanon, for example.

During the past year, the King made a number of declarations about the unequivocal commitment of Jordan to press freedom. “For us, the media will always be a fourth authority,” he announced in a letter sent to Prime Minister Nader Dahabi on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day marked on May 3rd. “It is not acceptable to send a journalist to prison for a difference in opinion on a public issue,” he made it clear on December 2007 addressing the parliament. Also in a meeting with the chief editors of the major dailies in mid-November, the king reiterated his stand explicitly announcing that “detention of journalists is prohibited.”

At the same time, he repeatedly emphasized that citizens “have the right to resort to courts of law in case they feel their rights were violated by any media organization”. On their own behalf, the newspapers reporting these announcements expressed loyalty and highlighted the journalists’ commitment to following state laws.

Only, the authorities in Jordan apparently find it difficult translating the royal declarations into actions. State officials seem not to view the media as a legitimate factor within the political agenda in the country. From their perspective, the role of the media is reduced in most cases to three fields: delivering functional information to the citizens, performing public relations for the country, interiorly and exteriorly, and providing entertainment. Stimulating public debate, however, is not one of the media’s missions.

In practice, even if last year indeed saw improvement in the attitude toward the press, courts still receive cases against representatives of the media as a result of suits mostly filed by governmental officials, rather than by citizens. Moreover, in almost all cases these are personal suits, and not against media outlets. However, in at least part of the cases, the dispute concludes when the punishment stated in the law is only partly imposed, if at all.

In a recent case from late October, Fayez Al-Ajrashi, editor-in-chief of the Jordanian weekly El-Ekhbariya, had to spend five days in prison before facing court. According to a press release by Reporters Without Borders, Ajrashi said that the reason which brought the governor of Amman to file a complaint to the state security court was a series of articles published on El-Ekhbariya during the recent months criticizing the politician’s record and exposing cases of corruption in the capital.

Even after being released on bail, the charges against Al-Ajrashi, “inflaming sectarian strife” and “sowing national discord” according to the Jordanian Penal Code, were not removed and at the same time, a civil court began debating a libel suit by the governor.

Incidents of this kind rewarded Jordan with the 128th place, out of 173, on the Press Freedom Index 2008 of Reporters Without Borders. The US, in comparison, was ranked 36th (and 119th “extra-territorial”), like the Jordanian English-written daily Jordan Times mentioning in its report on the subject. Laws governing local media performance guarantee a higher level of press freedom, the newspaper quoted Taher Adwan, chief editor of Al-Arab Al-Yawm daily. Local authorities do not act aggressively against media personnel, he added.

But that report was missing one detail. Last March, court sentenced the same Adwan, along with three other journalists, to three months behind bars after they were found guilty of charges related to “insulting the judiciary system and commenting on its rulings.” It was in 2006 when the journalists published commentary and news items on an appeal a citizen filed with the Higher Judicial Council concerning his citizenship. “These sentences are a setback to press freedoms and do not serve the trends towards liberalizing the press,” Osama Sharif, former chief editor of Ad-Dustour daily and one of the convicted, was quoted by Reuters. A report on the verdicts, however, was not to be found on any of the two newspapers.

“I’m a bit confused as to what this exactly entails. Don’t we criticize reduced sentences in so-called honor crimes all the time? Is that against the law?”, Lina Ejeilat, a former staff writer for the Jordanian English-language magazine JO was writing on her blog in response to the incident. “I lost hope in freedom of the press in Jordan a long time ago,” wrote another Jordanian journalist living in the US on her own blog. “Things seem to be going from bad to worse.”

A survey conducted as part of the World Public Opinion project and also published on the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day found, that 78 per cent of the Jordanian respondents defined the need for the media to be free to publish news and ideas without governmental control as “Very/Somewhat important”. But at the same time, 66 per cent of the kingdom citizens that had participated in the poll – the highest rank among all other 20 countries surveyed – supported the government having the right to prevent the media from publishing things that it thinks will be politically destabilizing. In the US, in comparison, only 27 percent favored the same argument.

If to judge by the frequency of the publications in Jordanian media on issues of press freedom, the journalists seem to be deeply concerned. Nevertheless, they tend to play by the local rules. According to a survey by the Jordanian-based Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ), also published on early May, 57 per cent of the 501 journalists polled noted that criticizing the government is a red-line for them. Moreover, 94 per cent admitted to exercise self-censorship in their work. “Many journalists prefer staying on the safe side because the definitions of the law are very vague,” Ejeilat tries to explain. According to Sawsan Zaidah, manager of the website and local radio station AmmanNet – Radio Al-Balad, “the laws were planned to protect the government from the media.”

And she should know. “As an editor-in-chief I’ve received many phone calls from security officials,” reveals Zaidah. “You have to negotiate with them so they don’t shut down the station.” Like her, no less than 65.9 per cent of the polled journalists at that survey mentioned governmental interference in the media, and 39 per cent said they responded to pressure exerted on them.

One of the methods goes through the wallet. The government, adds Zaidah, is the Jordan’s main advertiser, and it surely knows how to use that. However, a survey published on July by Jordan’s Higher Media Council, a governmental regulator recently abolished, found that in 2007 the media in the country enjoyed a rate of 52.3 per cent of freedom, described as “acceptable.”

Ejeilat believes that part of the self-censorship is caused by the tribal social construction based on strong conservative powers.”I’m taking into account the potential effect on family relatives of the things I’m writing,” she admits, also in regard of the popular blog she runs. “Self-censorship happens not only because of the fear of the law,” explains Zaidah, “but also because of the fear of losing audience.” She claims that Jordanian new media already have limited audience. “Many Jordanians tend not to trust the media in the country due to its history,” argues independent journalist Rana Sweis, “and therefore they prefer foreign TV channels”.

But on these satellite TV channels, including the Arab ones, the happenings in the Hashemite Kingdom receive only little coverage. “Jordan believes over-coverage only challenges stability,” says Tzvi Yehezkeli, head of the Arab affairs desk at the Israeli Channel 10 News. “They prefer less materials coming out, and what does get published – better be published by them.”

One of the methods for that is the Jordan Times – “The mouthpiece of the government”, as nicknamed by a reporter who used to work with the newspaper. An editorial that appeared on the newspaper’s May 6th issue claimed that “the media in the country have yet to develop a clear vision in the service of objective reporting”. “It’s been years that this is an important issue for us,” said Samir Barhoum, the newspaper editor-in-chief, on press freedom at a foreign journalists visit to the editorial desk a week later. “We try to be objective,” he explained, “but it’s not always possible.”