Jordan's lack of appreciation of public service broadcasting



 
Jordan like many Arab countries seems to be having a hard time understanding and dealing with the idea of public service broadcasting. After decades of government-owned and controlled radio and television stations Jordan under King Abdullah II began a new era of opening up the airwaves to the private sector. The Audio Visual Law enacted in 2002 which allowed the private sector to own radio and television licenses succeeded in creating a wide range of commercial stations But despite the privatization of the law Jordan has failed to create a legal environment or introduce traditions that encourages and better public service broadcasting.
 
Daoud Kuttab
 
Aman, Jordan telecommunication in discount. © Eddie Gerald / arabimages.com
Aman, Jordan telecommunications in discount. © Eddie Gerald / arabimages.com

Possibly the biggest problem that exists today is with the state run radio and television. Jordan Radio and TV which was set up by law used to be a monopoly and was given the task of providing public service programming. Jordanian taxpayers are footing the bill in the form of a broadcasting fee that is collected from every household. The electricity bill of every Jordanian home or business deducts one JD per account every month. The broadcasting fees go directly to the treasury. Less than half of this amount is given to JRTV and they are told to raise the rest of their needs in the form of advertisements and sponsorships. Jordan TV therefore is competing head to head with privately owned media outlets leaving the latter gasping for air.

Perhaps the worst part of this situation can be seen by monitoring the daily prize show presented on Jordan TV immediately after the Ramadaan fast break. Prizes are given to a few candidates based on phone calls. Jordanians are asked to call a predetermined number and answer simple questions, winners are then put in a pool in which a handful get to be on air to win prizes. The problem is that these calls cost 70 piasters a minute, most callers are kept on line a few minutes as the computer operated answering machine takes them through a list of options before they get to vote and then hope to be chosen in the pool. Everyday the process is repeated and you have to call again in hope of winning. The price of the call is rarely advertised leaving the public, often young children, raking up tens or hundreds of dinars on their home phone bill without their families knowing. State run Jordan TV caters mostly to some of the poorer Jordanians who have no access to satellite and so the problem is further compounded.

The one hour program itself has no redeeming value, no culture substance and is not even entertaining. It is simple a one hour advertisement for a host of companies who are giving away small prizes. Jordan TV officials say that they have no choice but to do this since the government doesn't provide them with the needed income to cover their costs. Over JD 15 million is said to be raised annually from the electricity bill, but ess than half is actually turned over to the national radio and TV corporation thus forcing them to cheapen their programming to attract advertisment.

On the regulatory front, the new audio visual law witnessed the licensing of tens of local radio and tv stations popping up (mostly based in the capital) but it is not clear whether these stations have the chance of long term sustainability. Various loopholes in the law and in practice have resulted in the clustering of advertisements income to a very small select group of stations because of the absence of a level playing field. One radio station, for example, FAN radio, which is owned by the armed forces, has taken advantage of the army's communication's system and has access to broadcasting towers throughout Jordan. Another is the police station AMEN FM which is owned by the Police Department and therefore has natural access to all the police officers and police reports before anyone else. The latter has publicly refused to have the traffic reports coming from the police helicopter or from general headquarters shared with other stations under the excuse that these are security information. Army and police officials say that they have a right to invest in media just like the private sector. No answer, however, is given as to whether the existence of such stations with tax payer subsidy and government waivers is good for a competitive audio visual industry or not.

In the midst of all this chaos, little attention is given to genuine public service and community based media. The World Bank has repeatedly shown that poverty levels have disappeared in communities that have a robust community media. In Jordan the Audio Visual Law favors entertainment based media rather than media that is interested in local issues. An additional 50% fee is slapped on any station wishing to broadcast news or politics (which is actually much more costly than entertainment program).

This temporary law must be amended and the idea of penalizing stations which broadcast local news and local politics has to be eliminated. On the contrary license fee waivers must be given to any not for profit radio station that is interested in public service broadcasting. Presently the Jordan cabinet has given waivers only to radio stations based in public universities, police, the Amman municipality station and to a station that is connected to one of the Royal NGOs. A local municipality near Madaba set up by UNIFEM was rejected a waiver because the municipality members were elected and not appointed! The government-run regulator should be supporting such public service stations and not making it difficult for them to exist and survive.

For the national tv, army and police-owned radio to have advantages in serving the public is fine and is commendable. But when these same publicly-owned stations seek advertising income using their advantage then there is a real problem. Free competition requires a level playing field. It is unacceptable for one station to have income from the tax payers, be exempt from paying broadcasting fees and have public advantages yet compete with other stations who have only their investment as the source of income. No wonder the police station wants to hord the helicopter traffic report since it feels that this will give it an advantage with advertisers but the result is that the public (which doesn't tune in to their station) is not served.

The audio visual market is a fast growing market with needs for a fair regulatory process that takes the need of public service broadcasting, community media needs as well as the needs for commercial media to survive and thrive. Leaving the process on auto pilot is simple a formula that invites corruption and money making under the cover of public service broadcasting.

Daoud Kuttab is the director general of Community Media Network which runs Radio al Balad in Amman and AmmanNet.net web site