By Khaled Diab
Jordanian journalists believe they do not enjoy enough freedom – a malaise shared with the rest of the Middle East. But why?
12 May 2010
A new survey on press freedom conducted by the Amman-based Centre for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) makes for sober reading. Despite Jordan's stated commitment to freedom of expression, only a minuscule minority (2%) of the 500 or so journalists surveyed said that they were entirely satisfied with the state of press freedom in the kingdom.
“Over and over again, speeches on media freedom have not been coupled with practical procedures in spite of all the clear royal messages addressing this issue,” said Nidal Mansour, who heads the CDFJ.
A fifth of those surveyed said they had been exposed to attempts to “contain” them, while 57% said they knew of colleagues who had been the victims of such containment. Co-option is also a common practice and one that can be far more effective than intimidation. The vast majority of journalists believed that journalistic favours in return for gifts and bribes were common.
In addition, some 95% of media professionals said that they practised self-censorship. While such crimes of omission are common even in the west, especially in places like the United States, the magnitude of the problem and the number of taboo subjects appear to be far greater in Jordan. Topics that are generally off-limits centre on a kind of “holy trinity”: the king and the royal household, religion, and state institutions, including corruption in high places.
A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Mansour in Amman where he told me about the CDFJ's Media Legal Aid Unit (Melad) which seeks to empower journalists and facilitate press freedom by providing media professionals with training on their rights and legal support.
And it is definitely needed. Despite the decriminalisation of press offences on paper in 2007, an estimated 100 clauses in national law allow legal action to be taken against journalists. An example of this occurred in 2003 when three Jordanian journalists were imprisoned for “defaming” the prophet in an article on Muhammad's sex life.
Jordan is ranked 117 out of 175 countries in Reporters Sans Frontières' annual Press Freedom Index (PFI), while neighbouring Egypt occupies the 143rd position in the league table. As a non-Jordanian, I don't know if this is a fair reflection of the situation there. I agree with my wife's assessment that the quality of journalism is high in Jordan, but certain key differences between Jordan and Egypt lead me to the conclusion that its media is actually more vibrant and outspoken.
What warps the picture in Egypt, as I have argued before, is the existence of large, state-owned media conglomerates (whose publications have become less popular than the independents), and the more frequent crackdowns by the state – triggered by a nervous government under immense popular pressure to change and the media's incessant drive to push the limits of freedom further out. In addition, Egypt's media tradition and modernising civil society movements are the oldest in the region.
“In Egypt, it might seem there is more control of the media. But, in fact, there is more independent journalism in Egypt, so more issues are discussed and come to the public eye,” was Mansour's own assessment.
In contrast, Jordan's media appears to be a lot less confrontational, and more willing to wait for top-down reform from King Abdullah II. This is partly because of the reverence in which the royal household is held, with its claims of descent from the Prophet, and the fact that the Hashemites are inextricably linked with Jordan's creation and identity.
In Egypt, the awe and fear of the president were shattered a few years ago, at least in the independent media, and Egyptians are generally under no illusions as to the extent of the corruption and violence of the regime.
Moreover, Jordan, unlike Egypt, is, under its modern veneer, very much a tribal society and one in which the indigenous tribes now make up a minority of the population, with an estimated 70% of the population being of Palestinian descent. This makes its hard-won social tranquillity, particularly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict leaking toxicity next door, a fragile one – and so many Jordanians are willing to compromise on a measure of freedom in return for stability.
But what goes for Jordan and Egypt, both of which have a strong journalistic tradition and are striving for reform, applies in spades to the entire region. ‘Stop press' seems to be the byword of governments. With the exception of Lebanon and the Qatar-based al-Jazeera network, which is often said to shy away from criticism of its host, the media across the Arab world suffers, to varying degrees, from repression.
So, why is press freedom so seriously compromised in the Arab world? There are different reasons in different countries, but one common thread is the general lack of legitimacy and accountability of the region's regimes who, therefore, view the free circulation of ideas as a fatally dangerous folly.
Another reason is the volatility of the region and the numerous conflicts that plague it, the ethnic and regional fault lines which increase tensions, not to mention the legacy of Ottoman and western colonialism, as well as foreign meddling.
The Middle East's instability is not just a reason but also an excuse. Governments use the shadow of external threats – both real and imagined – to try to intimidate and silence opposition and resist policies and reforms that run contrary to their vested interests.
This is not just an Arab phenomenon, however, and the Middle East's non-Arab countries also summon the spectre of irresistible and sinister outside forces. Iran, whose regime faces a serious challenge to its legitimacy from a vibrant opposition movement, not only occupies the lowest rank of the Middle Eastern PFI league, it is also scraping the bottom of the global barrel, and is “on the threshold of joining the ‘infernal trio' (Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan)”, according to RSF. The regime in Tehran evokes frightening demons in the form of the United States and Israel to keep its population in check.
Iran itself, not to mention the Palestinians, Syrians and the generic scary “Arab”, are summoned by Israeli politicians as the phantom threat that keeps dissenters in check. Although the freedom and independence of Israel's media puts the rest of the region to shame, even Israel does not fare well by global standards, and comes in at only 93 in the PFI. Its oft heavy-handed military censorship, punishment of journalists with links to Syria, its refusal to allow its journalists into the Palestinian Territories and its abuse of Palestinian journalists constitute serious breaches of media freedom.
This is the extended version of an article which appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 9 May 2010. Read the full discussion here.