Jordanian reporters hung by legal ropes

Jordan's media environment reflects a general trend in the Arab world of increased governmental control over the press establishment. Jordanian journalists are at the whim of the government's legal policies - some 17 legal press statutes - that have changed the very way Jordanian journalist think, work and function. Coinciding with World Press Freedom Day (May 2), Oula Farawati looks at a recent report that survey's press freedom in Jordan.
Majority of journalists practise self-censorship - graph reflecting what Jordan's reporters think about press freedoms in the Hashemite Kingdon. ©CDFJ

AMMAN, May 12, 2009 (MENASSAT) -  Ninety-four percent of Jordanian journalists censor themselves a survey by the Amman-based Centre for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) reported in early May.
The CDFJ survey was conducted to mark World Press Freedom Day and chief among the survey points was the notion of reporters' self-censorship.

The report contends Jordanian reporters edit their work so that they guarantee it upsets no one, starting with monarchy and ending with the ordinary Jordanian citizen.

More than self-censorship

CDFJ Director Nidal Mansour said at a press conference on May 2, the survey also focused on blogging and citizen journalism, which have emerged as forms of unregulated media in part to counter an increasingly threatened press establishment in the Arab world.

Self-censorship and censorship exercised at the editorial level has rarely made it into press surveys of this kind. But as the report indicates, the Jordanian government has in recent years drafted a series of laws to guarantee that local journalists operate in a controlled press environment.

As well, the report indicates that Jordan's press laws are generally vague, vested on one's loyalty for the country and religion and are elastic enough to be interpreted however the government wants.
Local journalist Majid Tobeh told MENASSAT that the level of self-censorship practiced by journalists in Jordan is shameful - but understandable.

"[Government] policies place a lot of red lines for journalists and we become entangled in a web of taboos related to religion, customs and duties, as well as with the authorities," he said, adding that Jordan's business sector was having an increasing influence on the country's press.

The survey, conducted between February 23 and March 13, covered a sample of 1,200 journalists, including members of the Jordan Press Association and those registered with the CDFJ.

According to the CDFJ, those polled avoided discussing many contentious issues related to Jordan's armed forces in their reporting.

Ninety-eight percent said they stop short of criticizing the Armed Forces, while 81 percent avoided any religious issues.

78 and 77 percent respectively said they avoid criticizing tribal and Arab leaders; 74 percent said they don’t discuss issues related to sexuality, and 54 percent said they avoid criticizing the government.

"We apply the law..."

While journalists said they actively practiced self-censorship, the survey showed that 68 percent of those polled believed that "government interference in the media" had also increased in recent years, compared to less than 8.5 percent of those journalists surveyed in 2004.

Hatem Abbadi, a reporter for Al Rai daily said the report only indicated what the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan expected of its reporters, adding that Jordan's journalists needed to self-censor their work.

"We have a set of laws and rules to abide by and these should govern us. We have to commit to such local regulations and legislation, and law-abiding journalists will see that reflecting positively in their work," he told MENASSAT.

"This is not self-censorship. This is respect. We apply the law within the context of our quest for truth."

Journalist Fayeq Hijazeen agreed with Abbadi. A senior reporter for the state-run Jordan News Agency Petra and the independent Al-Arab Al-Yawm daily Hijazeen said, "Self-censorship here is actually making sure that I evaluate the news I write and make sure I am abiding by my responsibilities to the society.

The survey has also found that despite promises from the ruling elite and the government that the sky was the limit where press freedoms were concerned, 50 percent of the polled journalists said that the status of press freedom had not changed in recent years.

38 percent said it achieved progress and 11 percent think it encountered setbacks. Only 5 percent said the status of press freedom was excellent while 57 percent described it as good.

Need for media reform

"The 2008 report reflects a drop in the number of complaints that were tracked in 2007. The most common complaints tracked in 2008 were the denial of freedom followed by threats, harassment, electronic piracy and assault, detention, libel and publication and coverage bans," Mansour said when discussing the work of CDFJ's legal media aid unit (MELAD).

The unit has managed to document and track 33 complaints that included 47 violations of journalists’ rights.

"The higher the journalist is on the career ladder, the higher his/her self-censorship. Chief editors and managing editors censor themselves and others," said Tobeh. "On the other hand, the media is lenient towards the private sector, with deep pocket advertisers making it hard for journalists to question and criticize."

The CDFJ's main recommendation was that Jordan's press laws needed to be reviewed in light of the report's findings.

The rights organization also recommended that journalists be given more access to official government information in accordance with "international standards of transparency," criticizing Jordanian ministries and government agencies for being obstructionist when dealing with local reporters' requests for information.

"There is also a dire need to devise a guide to good conduct and rules of action to govern relations between the security services and journalists in order to ensure independent media coverage of events in areas where there are tensions or crises," the CDFJ report said.