Activists in Jordan disappointed Arab Spring did not bring about a freer press

Story by Bri Hollis // Photo by Anthony Savvides

Osama Al-Rbeahat, a 26-year-old customs and border-control agent for the Jordanian government, is trying to get a message across. He has actively and fervently participated in political demonstrations for the past year, calling for constitutional reforms that place the majority of the power with the people.

But despite frequent Friday gatherings with fellow demonstrators, his message is being falsely portrayed, Rbeahat said. And he blames the media.

Rana Sabbagh, head of a journalism watchdog group based in Amman, addresses a group of journalism students about the importance of thorough investigative reporting in the Arab world, where a free press is not supported.

“They pass the negative image of the citizens or ignore the fact[s] and the truth,” he said through a translator. “The newspapers [give an] incorrect testimony that did not happen in the demonstration.” Or, they don’t acknowledge the protests at all, he said.

Rbeahat calls himself a victim of what others would describe as a state-run media. Characteristic of much of the Arab world, the press in Jordan is widely influenced and monitored by the government. In fact, the government owns all of the country’s official television stations and 70 percent of Jordan’s Al-Rai newspaper, which is a sister paper to the country’s most popular publication, The Jordan Times.

“The media is heavily state-run and most of the major publications people read are owned by the government,” said Fateh Mansour, program manager for the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists in Amman.

But after the Arab Spring – a series of political uprisings that began in December 2010 in Tunisia and spread through the Arab world –press restrictions in the Middle East were supposed to loosen because governments were promising to be more open to the people. At least that’s what people thought would happen.

“People were enraged about the things the government was hiding,” said Rami Kouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “[The government] said it would strive to make its actions more public, make itself more available.”

However, that’s not how it has played out. Jordan is merely giving an impression of having a freer press, media watchers say. Prominent publications – including The Jordan Times and JO Magazine, with a circulation of about 9,000 copies a month – over the past year have finally begun to publish in-depth pieces about controversial topics such as the influx of Syrians fleeing their country and heading to Jordan.

But fear of criticizing the parliament among other issues such as fear of being black-listed among public officials or even fined for criticizing Islam, still exists. That tends to drive away the media from reporting stories in their full form, as in Rbeahat’s case.

“They need to report the truth,” he said.

Jordan is currently No. 128 on an index that ranks how free a country’s press is. Finland leads the pack. The United States stands at 47, according to the 2011-2012 press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, a US-based organization that strives to protect and defend journalists’ rights internationally.

The level of media freedom in Jordan’s neighboring countries – Syria is ranked No. 176, Iraq No. 152 and Saudi Arabia No. 158 – contributes to the image of Jordan having a freer press than it actually does.

“Jordan has a good amount of freedom compared to other Middle Eastern countries,” acknowledged Cory Eldridge, features editor and staff writer for JO Magazine in Amman, an innovative, English-language social and cultural publication. “It’s just not necessarily free in the Western sense.”

Because people are freely talking about the protests – as well as the governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen ousted because of them – some think they have more of a voice here. As a result, journalists are responding despite the risks.

Said Eldridge: “It’s like you’re in a dark room. You take small steps because you’re scared the red lines are going to hit you in the face. Now people are walking farther. Before everyone wanted to stay away. They’re taking a few more steps and realizing they’re not really hitting the red lines yet – there’s more willingness to touch them.”

Electronic media plays a part in this as well, and its use has expanded among both journalists and the general public since Arab Spring began. With a newfound fearlessness, citizens are posting their religious, political and social opinions. This has “raised the ceilings” for journalists, said Mansour, because journalists know that such critiques exist in cyberspace and therefore feel more comfortable formally commenting on similar issues.

But many obstacles still exist for journalists, and most in the industry don’t hold out hope that it’s going to get better.

“I doubt a free press according to Western standards will ever exist,” said Eldridge, who graduated from the University of Oregon in 2007 and can readily compare west to east standards. “Even if journalists do push,” he said, “if the government doesn’t want to loosen press restrictions, they won’t do it.”

For now, though, it looks as though they’re not pushing. According to a 2011 survey by the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists, 87 percent of a pool of 500 media practitioners in Jordan said they still heavily self-censor their work.

“Too many journalists are too scared, too unprofessional,” affirmed Rana Sabbagh, a longtime journalist in Jordan and executive director of the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit organization designed to promote fearless, credible reporting. “They’re afraid to criticize, to push. They don’t go the length journalists need to go to, to get the truth…to get the right story.”

For example, in early February, it was revealed that more than 51 journalists had succumbed to the bribes of former chief of the General Intelligence Department Mohammad Dahabi.  According to published reports, he allegedly paid them to refrain from publishing information regarding a money laundering operation he was accused of being involved in.

Another roadblock to a free press is access to pertinent data to support the pieces journalists want to write, some reporters said.

“One of the biggest obstacles for journalists today is getting information,” said Rana Al Husseini, a practicing journalist for 18 years who writes primarily for The Jordan Times. She is best known for tackling the very controversial issues of violence against women in Jordan and specifically, the brutal murders of women who are killed by their families in the name of honor. “It’s not very easy to find information. I think this causes a huge problem.”

Because the government isn’t budging, journalists are hampered from fulfilling their duty to the public of providing them with full, adequate reports. Fear to move forward stems not only from fear of violating press law, but physical and verbal threats as well. There is a general lack of punishment for such acts, which enables these apprehensions, experts say.

This is something Mansour and others at the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists are trying desperately to change.

“[A] major problem is that journalists’ press rights aren’t only being violated,” said Mansour, “but their human rights as well. Many are threatened, physically attacked, and the [courts] are doing little to stop them.”

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