Jordan: directing democracy

Deena Dajani
13 March 2008

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is far from being a democratic state in the western sense, but the condition of political liberty in the country in recent decades compares favourably to that of its Arab neighbours Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Even a historian as critical of Arab states as Bernard Lewis has argued that it is in the "reforming autocracies" of the Arab world such as Jordan, that the best prospects for democracy exist. The country's record in defending an (albeit constrained) space of internal freedom and open debate is arguably even more impressive in light of its exposure to the fallout from the war in Iraq since March 2003 - which includes bombs in Amman, regional pressures and tensions, and the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees.

Deena Dajani is a PhD student at Loughborough University's Social Sciences Department. Her thesis explores the
participatory possibilities of transnational broadcasting in the Arab world in an effort to understand how the complex processes of politics, media, representation and
citizenship intertwine. Deena received a doctoral scholarship after completing a bachelors degree in media and communication studies at Loughborough University.

At the same time, the limits of liberty in Jordan are drawn more tightly - and often less clearly - than in many states by a mix of strict formal rules and informal practices. This was brought home to me in a sharp way in November 2007, when I was travelling the country to gather data (including film recordings) as part of my research project towards a doctorate at an English university.

A question of trust

My trip coincided with the fifteenth national parliamentary elections in Jordan on 20 November 2007, which saw 110 new members of parliament elected into office. The voting took place amid what Mohammad Al Masri, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies (CSS) at University of Jordan, identified as a "crisis of trust between citizens and the parliament". The evidence included a CSS poll where 80% of respondents believed that deputies in the previous parliamentary cycle had voted been mainly according to personal interest and opportunity for material gain.

As I criss-crossed Jordan against the backdrop of the elections, many of my impressions and experiences were ostensibly much more positive. I witnessed (and captured on my video-camera) community initiatives and civil-society debates from areas as diverse as farming villages, Bedouin dwellings, refugee camps and urban centres. The people I met touched me with their resilience, their hunger to improve their lives, their search for constructive solutions - and their willingness to walk distances to take part in community events!

At the same time, the "crisis of trust" referred to by Mohammad Al Masri was easy to detect. The regional accents may have been different in these public events, but the political frustrations were everywhere the same: with local representatives who "disappeared" after being elected, moving to the capital Amman and/or changing their mobile numbers, all the while becoming richer while their notional constituents had to cope with (for example) the removal of government subsidies on fuel.

The recordings that conveyed some of this rich mixture of frustration and hope were, I felt, too impressive only to be used in a longer-term academic exercise. So on returning to my university, I decided to do the only thing within my capacity to make these Jordanian citizens' voices heard: I started posting short clips from the public debates on YouTube.

A silenced voice

I had uploaded four such clips when it was reported that Jordan's Radio Al-Balad had been banned from broadcasting the parliamentary sessions of the house of representatives on account of a listener's comment that had been read out on air by the station's anchor, and which had been deemed offensive by the newly elected MPs. The "offensiveness" of the comment lay not in any profanity but could have been interpreted as implying that MPs were tainted by corruption and money-squandering.

It is worth noting that serving in Jordan's parliament can indeed be lucrative - for MPs once elected receive a lifelong monthly salary of JD 1,500 (over $2,000). In comparison, the minimum wage in Jordan is under $200 per month.

But officialdom in Jordan was less interested in the justice of the listener's claim or the right of free speech than in clamping down on both. Soon after Radio Al-Balad was banned from parliamentary broadcasting, Jordan's audio-visual commission regulator filed a lawsuit against it for "insulting" parliament. Moreover, the MPs' denunciation of the radio station was found to be backed by Jordan's penal code, whose Article 191 stipulates that any insult directed at the house of representatives or individual MPs can be punished by a jail term extending from three months to two years.

The columnist and blogger Batir Wardam pointed out that Jordan’s parliament has frequently rejected an amendment that seeks to remove a clause in the country’s press and publications law that permits journalists to be imprisoned for what they write or broadcast, and that only the personal efforts of King Abdullah II made the passing of the amendment possible. But perhaps even more telling is Wardam’s “note to self” at the top of his column, where he “reminds” himself of the need to tread carefully around the issue of freedom of speech.

Jordan’s political liberalisation has always been qualified, but the peculiarity in this instance is that an elected parliament (rather than, say, an overweening executive or a security agency) would dismantle hard-earned freedoms. As a Jordanian blogger warned: "worst case scenarios have a way of becoming the most likely scenarios in Jordan".

Also in openDemocracy on Jordan's politics and security:

Nermeen Murad Garlick, "Jordan: how the monarchy manages change" (19 May 2002)

Gil Loescher & Arthur C Helton, "Jordan: coping with a war next door"
(1 April 2003)

Paul Hilder, "The Amman roundtable, or people matter"
(2 June 2004)

James Howarth, "Jordan's 9/11"
(10 November 2005)

Paul Rogers, "Jordan catches Iraq's fire"
(10 November 2005)

James Howarth, "The fallout from Amman"
(16 November 2005)

El Hassan bin Talal, "Annapolis: a view from Amman"
(26 November 2007A turning switch

This controversy, and in particular this blogger’s comment, got me thinking of my posted YouTube clips. The generous and loving Jordanians I had met and filmed were participating in politics and criticising the failings of their representatives; in the most natural way, they were being citizens. But what if I was putting these people at risk for doing no more than saying (for example) “after parliamentarians get elected, they forget everyone and all their promises”? My clips were no more insulting than the Radio Al-Balad comment, but what happened to the radio station made me worry about the consequences of showing Jordanians behaving as normal citizens.

I lost sleep thinking it over. On the one hand, I strongly believe that these citizens should have their opinions heard, their perspectives acknowledged. On the other, I would never want to jeopardise their safety. Without being able to decide, I did what any self-respecting 22-year-old today would do: I posted the question to my friends on Facebook.

The responses were overwhelmingly in one direction: delete the clips. I got messages from friends saying that I wasn’t putting only these people at risk, but myself too. I was waiting for a comment urging me to keep uploading more, in an effort to widen the scope for Jordanian participation, but it didn’t come.

Radio Al Balad issued an apology and promised to carry out a restructuring process. A few days later I deleted the YouTube videos. Sadly, this real-life story about democratisation in Jordan cannot have a happy ending. At least not yet.

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