The Clock is Ticking on Jordan’s Media and Press Reforms

Jordan’s speedy and practical steps to unleash genuine media and press reforms aim to reflect the Kingdom’s vision of comprehensive modernization and development.

jordan-media-city

Credit: Jordan Media City

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has one of the most open press and media sectors in the Middle East. Since the early days of the Arab Spring, Jordan has engaged in reforms intended at active citizenship and better governance.

The case of Jordan confirms that the relationship between press, media and political reforms is evolutionary. Political reforms entail a process of dialogue, inclusion and institution-building that needs time to flourish and likewise, the enabling environment for effective press and media takes time to develop.

The introduction of the new amended Jordanian constitution in 2011 was in line with the kingdom’s guarantee of freedom of speech and expression, and provided the amendment of the Press and Publications Law of 1998 that entered into force in June 2013 with the aim to enhance the media and press environment.

Realistically, Jordan hosts several independent newspapers, and the government has a majority stake in major daily Al-Rai, and a minority stake in the second largest in circulation nation-wide daily Al-Dustour.

The Kingdom also hosts the Jordan Media City that was launched in 2001 as the first private media city in the region with the aim to provide the regional and international media industry with state of the art technologies. Satellite dishes are allowed, and pan-Arab news channels remain popular.

Reportedly, 97 percent of households in Jordan have a television set and of those, 90 percent have satellite dishes. Networks like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya with broadcast coverage of the political discourse and developments in the Arab world reach Jordanian viewers. The use of internet has increased and reportedly, more than 35 percent of the population has access to the web.

Legal amendments

With a royal stamp, amendments to the Press and Publications Law primarily dealt with the regulation of websites accessible in Jordan. Specifically, amendments intended to regulate websites, hold the responsible parties accountable, and place an obligation on individuals or entities interested in covering Jordan’s internal and external news to register and get licensed, lowering registration fees from JD 10,000 to JD 1,000.

Amendments contained four major changes to the original Press and Publications Law of 1998, starting with Article 49 which requires that all electronic publications, irrespective of their location of operation that publish news, press reports and comments relevant to the domestic or external affairs of Jordan must be registered and licensed with the Department of Press and Publications “by virtue of the Director’s decision.”

Article 49 provides that if an electronic publication is found to be in violation of the amended Law, the Director has the authority to block the pertinent website and close its administrative offices located in Jordan.

The second major amendment has been that of Article 38 which prohibits the publication of material that offends religious beliefs, and expands the notion of individual dignity by prohibiting the publication of “anything that includes contempt, slander, or defamation of individuals or affects their personal freedom.”

The third amendment that was made to Article 48 of the Press and Publications Law imposes a lower fine on Periodical Publications that are issued without a license, foreseeing that Publications which violate the Law will be fined an amount not less than one thousand dinars and not more than five thousand dinars.

Last but not least, the fourth major amendment provides that tribunals have jurisdiction over Press and Publications Law cases related to crimes committed either in violation of the Press and Publications Law, or against the domestic and external security of Jordan.

A new era of reform?

The amended legislation has been viewed as an institutionalized reform. Arguably, the operation of news websites and community radio stations has pushed the Kingdom’s overall reform envelope and favored the media’s engagement with local issues.

News websites have begun to focus on feature stories, provide analysis and demand action when problems are brought into the open, arousing public interest and interaction. In practical terms, the press and the media have started to act as magistrate getting rid of the stigma of one-sided news coverage by reporting extensively on cases of domestic corruption.

Most representative corruption case that was covered by the online and printed press was the one of a former intelligence chief. According to online and printed articles, Jordan’s former head intelligence for the period of 2005-2008 was sentenced to 13 years in prison on charges of embezzling public funds, money laundering and abuse of office.

The 2012 amendments to the Press and Publications Law of 1998 have meant to enhance the media and press environment. However, critics argue that implementation suffers from arbitrary classification and distribution of information by different ministries and state institutions.

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Critics also complain that while the outlets for news have increased, they are often blocked from obtaining information on government policies and officials. Concurrently, there is a prevailing belief among local journalists that a “soft containment” policy is pursued by business entities in an attempt to dominate the media sector.

A recent survey conducted by Al Quds Centre for Political Studies showed that methods of soft containment on journalists are practiced by businessmen with a percentage of 69, influential figures with a percentage of 32.2, and civic society organizations with a percentage of 31.

In a coordinated effort to address press and media reform gaps, the Lower House’s Public Freedoms Committee currently works to revisit several laws governing the media, and the freedom of expression to come up with new amendments. As stipulated by the Constitution, it is feasible for the Jordanian legislative bodies to repeal or amend by October 1, 2014, all law, regulations and legislative acts relating to the constitutional amendments.

It is in this context that Jordan’s parliamentary committee has formed several teams to study the Press and Publications law in collaboration with the Jordan Press Association, the Centre for Defending the Freedom of Journalists, the government, the National Centre for Human Rights, and media entities to study the loopholes in the law and come up with a unified vision on how best to enhance press and media reforms.

The parliamentary committee also looks into the contention of various articles, including the one that gives the Press and Publications Department director the authority to block news websites that do not obtain licences in accordance with the law.  Reportedly in 2013, the access to some 250 websites was blocked as they did not register and obtain a license with the Press and Publications Directorate.

The committee also looks into technical issues like that of cancelling an article which conditions that news websites must be run by an editor-in-chief who has been a member of the Jordan Press Association for at least five years.

Looking towards the future

Undoubtedly, Jordan’s speedy and practical steps to unleash genuine media and press reforms aim to reflect the Kingdom’s vision of comprehensive modernization and development. It is in this context that Jordan engages in constant dialogue with international agencies and organizations.

A conference titled “Legal Media Dialogue” was held at the Dead Sea in March 2014 with the participation of lawmakers, journalists and legal experts to test the resolve of all stakeholders to improve freedom of the press.

Interestingly in 2013, the UN Universal Periodic Review of Jordan’s human rights record issued 18 recommendations, of which 15 were accepted by the government, substantially calling for cancelling or amending articles in the Penal Code that impose restrictions on the freedom of expression, and on amending the Press and Publications Law to ensure the full protection of freedom of speech.

Additionally, Jordan cooperates closely with the EU which previously funded UNESCO’s project titled “Enhancing Professional and Accurate Media Reporting on the Electoral Process,” and currently has extended support for a 4-year project entitled “Support to Democratisation, Civil Society and Media in Jordan.”

Notably, under an EU-Jordan agreement for the period 2013-2014, the European Commission will provide €10 million to Jordan to support civil society and the media. The agreement aims at strengthening democracy in Jordan through increased participation of citizens in political life and through building capacity for an independent, quality based media sector.

Similarly, Jordanian authorities and civil society coordinate with the US Agency for International development to implement the Jordan Media Strengthening Program that aims to promote sustainable and professional media system that provides citizens the information and news necessary to participate effectively in political institutions.

The program offers training opportunities for professional journalists, encourages sustainable media management practices such as for community radio, promotes skills amongst mid-career journalists, and provides targeted advice to regulatory authorities and policy makers to formulate a legal environment conducive to media reforms.

Evidently, Jordan is offered the golden opportunity, as result of preparation, consistent work, and dedication, to create blooming of reforms in the press and the media whose ability to bring about accountability and transparency is the bedrock of democratic evolutions, with no shortcuts permitted.

Antonia Dimou is associate at the Center for Strategic Studies, University of Jordan and the Center for Middle East Development, University of California. She is head of the Middle East Unit at the Institute for Security&Defense Analyses, and senior advisor at the Research Institute for European and American Studies, Greece.

  • Ali1727

    “Political reforms entail a process of dialogue, inclusion and institution-building that needs time to flourish and likewise, the enabling environment for effective press and media takes time to develop.”

    Ali H. Alyami: This is what Arab dictators and their beneficiaries and apologists always say. The overriding reason that makes introduction and development of political and social democratic reforms in the Arab World are slow (or considered un-Islamic, therefore sinful) is because the ruling dynasties have to make sure that their interests and eternal rule are not affected by democratizing their lagging societies.

    The Jordan’s oligarchs may differ from the rest of the ruling families and dynasties in the Arab East only in degrees not in substance, despite the fact that the population of Jordan is more worldly, educated and exposed to modernity than most Arabs, thanks to the British colonial era and involvement in Jordan.

    No doubt that the Jordanian reliance on handouts from the Gulf Arab oil rich autocrats is impeding progress in Jordan, but even if that were not the case, the Hashemite kings won’t be in a hurry to democratize the country and share real power with its population.