North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

What's wrong with Jordanian media?

Lack of home coverage of the royal family’s biggest public rift in decades reveals the dire state of access to information in the kingdom

abeer alnajjar
Abeer Alnajjar
9 April 2021, 12.10pm
Prince Hamzah said he was under house arrest
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Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Jordan is one of the few stable Arab countries but in the past week, the kingdom has been shaken by news of a thwarted coup and high-profile arrests. The unfolding events have exposed not only a political crisis, but a deepening crisis of freedom of information and journalism as well.

Last Saturday 3 April, news broke on Twitter when a witness claimed that Yasir Al Majali, one of Prince Hamzah Bin Al Hussein’s main aides, had been arrested along with a few others. Prince Hamzah, who has been highly critical of the government, is King Abudllah II’s half-brother and was the crown prince from 1999 until 2004.

A few hours later, The Washington Post quoted a “senior Middle Eastern intelligence official”, who said that 20 Jordanians and a royal family member were arrested. Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a member of the royal family, was one of those reported to have been arrested in The Washington Post. A few hours later, Jordanians were eager for credible information on the state of affairs in the country.

Prince Hamzah made a video recording on Saturday that was reportedly shared by his lawyer with the BBC, to confirm he was under house arrest and was not allowed to communicate with anyone. He said his phone line had been cut and he expected to lose his internet connection also.

Silencing the media

The way information was circulating about the alleged coup exposed the inability of local media to respond to such events when it is deprived of access to information and either constrained, led by self-serving elites, or both.

The fact that the first main sources about the events unfolding in the kingdom were foreign media outlets (the Washington Post and the BBC) reveals a lot about the state of marginalisation and the weakness of the Jordanian media and information system. It also says a lot about the country’s political elite’s relationship with local media.

Critique on Twitter highlighted the late arrival of the Jordanian media to the coverage and the lack of information it provided compared with foreign media outlets.

The Jordanian journalist, Basil Al Rafaih, called on the country’s media, and the Al Mamlakah channel in particular, to inform the public about the arrests. The independent media outlet, 7iber, published an op-ed asking whether “journalism was still possible” in the kingdom. 7iber’s article described local journalism as being about “avoiding coverage, repeating the government's statements, or showing loyalty to the regime”.

On Tuesday 6 April, when the Jordanian public prosecutor banned reporting on the alleged coup both in the media and on social media

At the time of writing, Jordanian media outlets, such as Jordan TV, Al Mamlaka, Al Rai newspaper, and the privately owned Al Ghad newspaper, have not shared Prince Hamza’s video or reported its content.

And the constraints were deepened even further on Tuesday 6 April, when the Jordanian public prosecutor banned reporting on the alleged coup both in the media and on social media. Gag orders are nothing new in Jordan – similar orders were announced on the eve of the government’s order to close the Teachers’ Syndicate in July last year, as well as on the inquiry into the Salt hospital crisis last month, when at least seven COVID-19 patients died after the hospital’s oxygen supply failed.

Freedom under attack

This is despite the fact that in 2018 the Jordanian government invested millions of dollars into developing the public service 24/7 news TV station, Al Mamlaka (The Kingdom), which has operated since then with a yearly budget of nearly $40m. The station promised to be inclusive of all Jordanian voices. The station’s CEO, Dana Suyyagh, claimed in 2018 that although the channel was “state funded”, it was “administratively independent”.

The US-based NGO Freedom House, which conducts research into democracy and human rights throughout the world, downgraded Jordan from its status of ‘partly free’ last year to ‘not free’ this year. It said the downgrading was due to Jordan’s harsh new restrictions on freedom of assembly, a crackdown on the teachers’ union following strikes and protests, and a lack of adequate preparations that harmed the quality of parliamentary elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The country has been increasing restrictions on freedom of the press since 2012 and has witnessed several waves of protest since 2011 calling for more freedom, as well as economic and political reforms.

In 2012, parliament passed an amendment to the 1988 Press and Publication Law. It required all news websites that published regional, national or international news to register with the government and appoint an editor-in-chief who was a member of the Jordan Journalists’ Syndicate.

At the time, the syndicate did not allow journalists working for online media to become members but this has since changed. A total of 120 websites were unable to proceed with the registration or refused to register with the government and therefore were blocked in early 2013 by the country’s internet service providers.

In August last year, Human Rights Watch criticised the authorities for using gag orders, harassment and arrests to limit media coverage of the teachers’ protests and said that police had beaten two journalists who covered the demonstrations.

Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said: “Jordan’s cynical exploitation of arbitrary measures such as gag orders and arrests to silence journalists is only the latest in a series of restrictions on press freedoms in the country. Jordan will not solve its myriad of economic and political problems by cracking down on journalists and limiting free speech.”

This new crisis shows once again the dire lack of public access to information in the kingdom, and how poorly local media is treated by the state. The result is the deterioration of citizens’ right to be informed, to access vital information and to be able to express their opinions freely. And even when officials are able to leak important news, the past week has shown that they look abroad to do so.

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