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Media Landscapes in Transition: Perspectives from the Arab World
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By Judith Pies, Amirouche Nedjaa
 
A taxi journey in Amman can introduce you to the challenges and chances of media accountability in Jordan and other transitional Arab countries. Assume you are traveling with Mohammed Abu Safieh, a taxi driver and chairman of Balad Radio’s listeners’ club. Balad Radio is the first community radio station in Jordan and it wants to include the audience in its daily work and the listeners’ club is part of how Balad Radio aims to do that. Originally, Mr. Abu Safieh’s task was to collect listeners’ complaints and ideas and pass them on to the journalists in the newsroom who would then use them to improve their performance. In reality, his job has become much more complex: journalists in the newsrooms don’t necessarily want taxi drivers to interfere in their work; citizens contributing to news gathering don’t reveal their sources to the radio staff; the mukhabarat (the secret service) wants to make sure that Balad Radio is not too critical of the local head of police.
While driving his taxi through Amman, Mohammed Abu Safieh receives phone calls from officials, citizens and journalists. His five years of experience working with the listeners’ club has equipped him with the necessary tools to moderate between the differing claims: “The club has helped me to understand decision making mechanisms by the state, members of parliament and media outlets. It has also helped me to understand how credible or transparent they all are.” His representative role as chairman of the listeners’ club has shifted to a mediating position, and the challenge is to answer some of the basic questions for journalism in Jordan and other countries in transition: how can journalism become more independent of regimes? Can audience involvement make journalism more responsible towards the needs of society? How much transparency is needed to evaluate the quality and independence of journalists’ work?
Regimes still hold journalists to account
A big challenge is the remaining impact of the regime’s various means for directing journalists to act in the regime’s own interest. In Jordan, censorship was banned from print journalism in 1989, when martial law was also lifted. However, direct content control through radio and TV licensing procedures, and less explicit forms of control, so-called “soft containment”, are still present. Politicians, businessmen, religious leaders and others, who want to influence journalists’ reporting, threaten journalists with prison or offer them money. In a survey by the Jordanian Al-Quds Research Center, 43% of the Jordanian journalists surveyed said that they had been exposed to such attempts, mostly because they were reporting on security issues. So, journalists in Jordan use the expression “phone calls from the mukhabarat” almost interchangeably with “soft containment”.
In Tunisia, any criticism of the government or the president was subject to systematic censorship until the end of the Ben Ali regime in 2011. The Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), which was controlled by the government, imposed heavy content filtering. Oppositional and regime critical websites were blocked and even media outlets operating from abroad, like Radio Kalima, were hacked. Journalists were constantly in fear of being imprisoned. Even though a lot of reform initiatives have taken place since the revolution (see infobox), pressure from politicians, judges, media owners and security services remain. One example is the arrest of Attounissia newspaper journalists for publishing a photograph showing the German-Tunisian football player Sami Khedira hugging a naked top model.
Long standing practices of control and pressure do not change within a few years and journalists need to learn to live up to their new freedoms and growth in independence. In theory, journalists strongly reject “soft containment” and state interference, but how can they get rid of it in practice?
Journalists are skeptical about traditional forms of self-regulation
Journalistic codes of ethics are the oldest form of journalistic self-regulation and have been adopted in countries all over the world. However, many authoritarian regimes have misused them, using them as another means of state control. In the case of Jordan, the code of ethics, issued by the Jordanian Press Association in 2003, became a legally binding part of the press and publications law, completely contradicting the idea of voluntary and independent journalistic self-regulation. This cynically explains why, in the MediaAcT-survey, Jordanian journalists consider codes of ethics as highly influential for their journalistic performance.
In many European countries, professional organizations have been playing an active role in fighting for journalists’ interests and their independence from the state. However, in Tunisia and Jordan, they have not been of great help over the last thirty years because the regimes had tightly controlled them. Only recently have they started to struggle for independence, as in the case of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), which has rejected plans to exclude journalists from the future regulatory body for radio and television (HAICA).
Independent press or media councils, which might also help to keep the state out of the profession , have not yet been established in Tunisia or Jordan. Journalists from these countries still hesitate to support initiatives to form press councils and other bodies regulating the media for fear of being co-opted by the regimes again. The majority of Jordanian and Tunisian journalists in the MediaAcT-survey say that such “formal systems of media regulation are open to abuse for political purposes.” Nevertheless, according to the same survey, they are convinced that “responsible media are a pre-condition for independent media”.
The audience as a potential ally for more independence
The audience seems to agree with the journalists’ conviction and has become active in holding the media to account. They criticize articles in their comments on news websites, upload their own content in special sections and contribute to news gathering via Facebook and the telephone. Some projects outside newsrooms encourage journalists and the public to produce their own news. Their aim is “to hold the media to account for what they don’t cover” as expressed by Lina Ejeilat, co-founder of the Jordanian project, 7iber.com. In Tunisia, the organization Nawaat has founded a news website, to which bloggers and journalists contribute in order to adjust the news agenda to the real needs of society. Due to the late liberation of a strictly censored online environment under Ben Ali, such practices are not yet as well established in Tunisia as in Jordan. However, journalists in both countries are equally willing to accept audience involvement, to a greater extent than most of their European colleagues, as the results of the MediaAcT-survey demonstrate. It seems that they have found support for their fight for independence in the audience: listeners and readers provide newsrooms with information that journalists would not otherwise get due to lack of access to official information; the audience addresses social problems better than the minister of development; criticism from the audience is not as threatening as from the secret service.
Transparency is still a controversial issue
Internet technology helps to strengthen the relationship between newsrooms and the audience, but it also helps politicians to spread their view points or false information more efficiently through Facebook accounts and comments. Therefore, it becomes even more important for journalists to be transparent about their work and their networks. A recent – yet unpublished – study by one of the authors on transparency in Tunisian news websites found that only 40% display their chief editor’s name. Giving information on media owners is even less common. During the dictatorship journalists were forced by law to clearly publish their names on articles. Now, they have the freedom to refrain from that practice of transparency. Naming sources and giving clear references or links to information could have been dangerous for them and their sources: that is why they preferred to stay vague and still often stick to that habit today. Because of these authoritarian experiences Tunisian and Jordanian journalists are still hesitant about transparency though this is changing. Today, the majority of Jordanian journalists support the disclosure of ownership of media organizations, the publication mission statements, the provision of links to sources and explanations about news decisions to the audience. For their part, Tunisian journalists do not agree amongst themselves about these practices because they have only recently started to consider and introduce more radical changes. In addition, a growing number of organizations and projects are trying to shed light behind the scenes of news production, by critically observing the media’s performance. One of them is the Arab Working Group for Media Monitoring (AWGMM). Its main activity is the monitoring of media coverage in order to determine whether fair and balanced reporting is taking place. Extended monitoring and greater transparency would not only give a clearer picture of the media’s performance during important transitions, but might also improve the audience’s ability to judge media quality and independence.
Hard job, but promising
The described attitudes, initiatives and developments prove that Mohammed Abu Safieh’s job is a hard, but promising one. If he managed to convince the citizen contributors to reveal their sources to the newsroom journalists; if the journalists double checked the information and agreed to withhold the source’s name in return; if he was then able to silence the mukhabarat with bulletproof facts; Mohammed Abu Safieh would probably call it a successful day for media independence.

Background

 

Legal and regulatory steps for (partly) liberalizing the media
Jordan since King Abdallah II (1999-2013)
- 2001 Abolishing the Ministry of Information
- 2003 Implementing the audio-visual law allowing private radio and television stations
- 2003 Establishing two regulatory bodies for radio and television, AVC & TCR
- 2007 Passing of an access to information law
- 2007 & 2010 Passing revisions of the press and publications law
Post-revolutionary Tunisia (2011-2013)
- 2011 Abolishing the Ministry of Information
- 2011 Freezing of the two main censor institutions, ATCE and ATI
- 2011 Creation of a national body for information and communication reform, INRIC
- 2011 Passing revisions of the press and media law
- 2011 Licensing twelve new radio and five TV channels
- 2011 Passing a law for access to information
- 2012 Drafting regulations for an audiovisual regulatory body, HAICA

 

Links
Jordanian Balad Radio www.balad.fm
Jordanian citizen journalism website 7iber.com www.7iber.com
Tunisian Bloggers’ Platform Nawaat www.nawaat.org
Arab Working Group for Media Monitoring www.awgmm.org

 

Further Readings
Ferjani, Riadh (2011): All the Sides of Censorship: Online Media Accountability Practices in Pre-Revolutionary Tunisia. In: MediaAcT Working Paper Series http://www.mediaact.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/WP4/MediaAcT_Working_Paper_Tunisia.pdf
Pies, Judith (2013) Media Accountability in Transition: Survey Results from Jordan and Tunisia. In: Journalists and Media Accountability. An International Study of News People in the Digital Ageedited by Susanne Fengler et al. New York et al.: Peter Lang (in print).
Pies, Judith; Madanat, Philip (2011): Beyond State Regulation. How Online Practices Contribute to Holding the Media to Account in Jordan. In: MediaAcT Working Paper Series, 5/2011. http://www.mediaact.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/WP4/WP4_Jordan.pdf

 

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