The King and the media

The Jordanian media has come under heavy scrutiny by the country's highest authority, King Abdullah, because of their recent coverage of government economic and cultural policies. MENASSAT's Amman correspondent has been following the events and gives us this report on the battle between Jordan's journalists and the government.
king abdullah
King Abdullah of Jordan has called his country's journalists "careless, incompetent, shameful and irresponsible." R.R.

AMMAN, July 11, 2008 (MENASSAT) - Jordan's news establishment has taken a beating over the last two weeks by the country's monarchy for its reporting on recent government economic and cultural policy decisions.

Some of the stories that drew the monarchy's ire involved a questionable sale of state land in Amman and Aqaba, and allegedly entrusting the promotion of Jordan's Arts and Culture Festival to a French events company that was also involved in Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations.

Topping it off was the Jordanian media's criticism that the government had been anything but transparent in responding to these stories.

The media assault on the government's policies flushed out its highest authority, Jordan's King Abdullah, who accused Jordan's media of being "careless, incompetent, shameful and irresponsible."

In a candid interview with the official Jordan News Agency last week, King Abdullah said, "I am extremely shocked and dismayed at the low level of debate transpiring in some elite and media circles."

"This is a case study on how [our media] can be irresponsible and how it is doing a massive disservice to our country and on how it can stop our development. Indeed, our worst enemies lie within," King Abdullah added.

"Should Jordan's future be held hostage to rumors and gossip? And should false information be the reference for our Jordanian press? Should we remain silent until the truth becomes the victim of irresponsible journalism?" the King asked.

Feeding frenzy

King Abdullah's remarks were followed by an avalanche of press reports and columns, especially in the state-controlled media, about how the media should "become accurate, professional and committed to staying away from rumors."

MENASSAT heard from several reporters that many in their ranks had been used by various sources to serve particular agendas.

"Some journalists here are just so cheap," one business reporter told MENASSAT on the condition of anonymity.

"They are bought and sold at will and they are a disgrace. They deserved to be bashed by the King," she said.

According to this reporter, many Jordanian reporters did not even bother to check facts about the issue of the government land sales in Aqaba, succumbing to public anger instead of doing their jobs.

The land deal

The land deal being referred to was the recent government sale of a large seaside plot of land in Aqaba to an Abu Dhabi real-estate consortium, Al-Ma'abar, for US$500 million. The money was to be used to settle some of the country's debts to the Paris Club of creditors.

The move was soon followed by leaks that more land in Amman would be sold, including Sports City, Al Hussein Medical City and several other locations.

The public and media response to the pending land sale was massive, and the mood on the streets was that the government was "selling the country to foreigners."

The government response was awkward to say the least. Some government officials said the news was true at a time when other officials denied it.

According to Jehad Mansi, a senior reporter at Al Ghad Daily, to an angry public, refuting any news story as not true is as good as confirming it.

"We are totally not to blame," he told MENASSAT, adding, "If any one is to be blamed, then it is the government, which lacked transparency and strategy and resorted to blaming journalists for the angry public response."

Arts festival

A similar situation occurred with the ongoing national Festival for Culture and Arts, which might have been canceled if not for King Abdullah's recent television intervention and criticism of the media.

The festival is currently hosting big names in the arts and entertainment industry such as Amr Diab and George Wassouf and opera singers Placido Domingo and Monica Yunus.

Some of these artists were expected to cancel their appearances after several Arab and Jordanian artists threatened to boycott the festival in response to a campaign led by Jordan's Islamists and aligned opposition forces.

The controversy involved the alleged hiring of the French production company, Publicis Groupe, which also planned Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations. At least, this was the accusation made by Salameh Daraawi, a reporter with the Jordanian daily Al Arab Al Yawm.

"So-called journalists"

In response to the issue, King Abdullah told the official Jordan News Agency in last week's interview, "Arab artists are contemplating canceling their performances and Arab tourists that were planning on visiting Jordan are canceling their trips. The government is now wasting its valuable time and resources trying to do damage control. All this because some so-called journalists are too careless and incompetent to do their basic work; it is shameful."

Again, the government had conflicting statements about the organizing company of the festival.

Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Maha Khatib said the company was only involved in "contracting a few Arab and foreign artists", at a time when Managing Director of Jordan Tourism Board Nayef Al Fayez was saying, "The organization of the festival has been purely Jordanian. We denied any involvement by Publicis Groupe and added that the French company Les Visiteurs du Soir was the one involved in contracting some of the artists."

[ A spokesperson for Publicis Groupe told the Jordan Times, "There is no kind of cooperation whatsoever with Jordan in arranging the event." The PR firm also rejected claims that it had helped organiseze Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations. ]

Government double-speak

But Salameh Daraawi, who published the allegations in Al Arab Al Yawm, is unapologetic.

"I stand by what I wrote. I double-checked my information. The government admitted that Publicis Groupe was organizing the event and then they changed the facts to escape from the problem," he told MENASSAT.

"The media have always been the scapegoat for the failures of governments. We are the exit point for their lack of planning and sound management," he added.

Daraawi's newspaper has said it is now under heavy pressure from the government to tone down its reporting and to change some of its more controversial reporters. The King's remarks were said to be directed at them.

The press fights back

The newspaper's initial response was to ask some of its writers to temporarily stop writing. But late last week, the newspaper came back with a strongly worded opinion piece by its editor-in-chief, Taher Adwan, who lashed out at the "attackers" and said his newspaper was "national and believes in plurality and freedom in speech."

Mohammad Abu Rumman, a columnist with Al Ghad daily, also came to the defense of Jordan's journalists.

In a July 7 column, Abu Rumman wrote that he believed some politicians with "cruel stances" against the media were using the King's interview to deviate from the facts. Those politicians, according to Abu Rumman, were putting the burden of their political mistakes and backward mentalities on the media.

"Daily newspapers didn't deviate from their professional and responsible duties," Abu Rumman wrote. "The media was responsible and committed to its role of overseeing the performance of the government and its need to serve national interests… If some writers in the international media wrote doubtful stories, then this is not the fault of the responsible media..."

In short, Abu Rumman concluded, " We are not to blame."