Press freedom in Jordan A-OK, govt says

In a recently released report, Jordan's government has said the country now enjoys an "acceptable" level of press freedom. But Jordanian journalists and press organizations point out that many barriers still stand in the way of a free press.

AMMAN, July 23, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The state-run Higher Media Council (HMC) released the results of a survey this week, which showed that the level of press freedom in Jordan stood at 52.3 percent in 2007.

In response, the Jordanian media corps also weighed in this week and expressed skepticism about the survey, saying that the government's point system was arbitrary and was one the HMC itself invented.

The worldwide press freedom organization Reporters without Borders (RSF) maintains its own Annual World Press Freedom Index, which gives Jordan a score of 40.21 percent in 2007, up from 27.50 percent in 2006. Except that in RSF's index, the higher the score the lower the level of press freedom. In fact, Jordan ranked 122nd in the list in 2007, down from 109th in 2006.

The government report, which polled the opinions of 580 journalists, editors-in-chief and directors of media outlets, admitted that "a lack of access to information was a major obstacle facing journalists while doing their job."

No less than 424 of the 580 journalists polled admitted to "facing difficulties in obtaining information while in other cases they were completely denied access to information," the report said.

On the other hand, the report also pointed out that there "were no significant abuses of press freedom in 2007." Specifically, the council was happy to report that "last year, there were no murders or kidnapping incidents reported against the media."

However, 191 respondents still said their work was prejudiced by official censorship.

Conflict of interest?

"The council remains in the gray area with regards to credibility," said the director of Jordan's Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ), Nidal Mansour. "The council should have criticized the government even if it was one of its executive arms."

Jordan's media landscape is growing exponentially, especially with the advent of online news websites. But the main mass media outlets – Jordan TV, the mass-circulation Al Rai and Jordan Radio – remain highly controlled by the government.

Reporters without Borders, in its 2008 report, was critical of Jordan's press freedom record (despite the fact that Jordan scores relatively well compared to most Arab countries.)

"State security police have kept journalists under pressure despite King Abdullah II's promises of democratic reform. A new government after parliamentary elections in November 2007 did not produce major changes for the media and self-censorship continues," the press freedom organization said.

Despite several changes to press regulations and the official dismissal of a case against a journalist who reprinted the controversial Danish newspaper cartoons of the prophet, RSF said "These encouraging developments were not enough to reassure journalists, ever mistrustful of the authorities, who continued to use interference and hidden pressure to control the press."

The government should listen to itself

The Jordanian media is under constant pressure in attempting to adhere to the 24 laws that govern media conduct in Jordan, starting with the Press and Publications Law and ending with the Penal Code.

Hatem Abbadi, a reporter with Al Rai Daily said that lack of cooperation in providing information to journalists was even harder on journalists than the restrictive laws that are aimed at curbing criticism of the government.

A member of the Journalists Association Council (JAC), Majid Tobeh, believes that the report was lenient on the government, using words like "official observation" instead of "censorship."

Tobeh pointed out that even according to the government's own index, press freedom in Jordan has in fact declined when compared to a similar 2005 survey which put press freedom at 56 percent.

"That means that there is still a decline and the government should pay attention to that," he said.

Jordanian journalist Maryam Nasr said that what Jordan really needs was a proper law for accessing information, like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the United States. 

According to Nasr, reporters suffer on a daily basis in their attempts to obtain information. In Jordan, most senior officials, notably government ministers, routinely prohibit employees from giving out information without prior permission from the minister himself. The ministers themselves, on the other hand, are often hard to contact.

Listening to public opinion

The HMC report did address these issues to an extent. "Updating relevant legislation to promote the media sector such as the Press and Publications Law and an Access to Information Law," was one of its recommendations.

It also called on the relevant authorities to support and enhance the independence of the press and the electronic media in order to perform professionally and in a responsible manner.

However, columnist Jiohad Muahaisen said one major flaw in the survey was its obliviousness to public opinion. 

"Citizens are the final recipients of all media. They interact with what is reported and should be taken into consideration. They can assess it and thus show decision makers and the media what their expectations from both are," he wrote in Al Ghad newspaper on July 23.

JAC member Majid Tobeh told MENASSAT, "Until the decision makers acknowledge the media needs a serious change in legislation and policy, Jordanian media will continue to languish under its own limitations, much of it self-inflicted, by self-censorship tendencies brought on by a fear of punishment."