I was caught off guard when the call came from the Prime Ministry. The governmental committee set up to design a strategic media plan wanted to hear my opinion. Along with Nidal Mansour, from the Centre for Defending the Freedom of Journalists, and Rana Sabbagh, from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalists, we met with the committee three times. I met with the committee members a fourth time, when they consulted radio station owners and managers.
My surprise stemmed from my scepticism about the committee. After all, this was a governmental committee that was looking into an industry that was mostly run by the private sector. My other reason for doubt was the pile of obsolete reports carried by other committee with similar missions. The National Agenda Committee headed by Marwan Muasher, for example, was a committee on whose recommendations people placed much hope, only to see their hard work end up simply in an archive of Jordan’s reform history. The National Agenda’s 19 recommendations for the media sector were exposed to an international media gathering held in Amman some six years ago. There were high expectations about its recommendations, especially when they were endorsed by His Majesty the King and were included in the letter of designation of the then-prime minister Marouf Bakhit (in his first term). But within less than a year, the recommendations were dismissed as highly optimistic and inappropriate for Jordanians. Bakhit was quoted as saying that Jordanians were not ready for such democratic reform.
The current committee members, headed by the former editor of Al Arab Al Yawm, insisted that things were different now and that they were commissioned to meet everyone and come up with a document that will guide Jordan’s media policy for the next years. To prove the seriousness of their mission, they informed us that they are obliged to come up with the strategy within two months.
Sure enough, a document was produced after many meetings. Our suggestion about the need for a media complaint council was adopted. I was happy to see that community media were given a special chapter. Ideas about opening up the journalists’ association and ending mandatory membership were not included in the recommendations. The new strategy recommended revision of a dozen or so laws related to the media.
One issue that took a lot of discussions was the committee members’ desire to find ways to curb or control electronic media. The proliferation of news websites and the government’s inability to control or regulate them was a source of deep concern.
Our recommendation was that no law could provide such an outcome as electronic media are global. Even if a law restricting Jordanian sites were passed, there was no legal way to restrict internationally based sites and social media. We suggested self- regulation and insisted that the media complaint council could reduce some of the damage and provide the government and the public with a mechanism to address complaints.
The committee accepted this conclusion and made no specific recommendation to restrict websites.
The government did not act on the recommendations for a couple of weeks after they were passed on to the prime minister. Last week, suddenly, an announcement was made that the media strategy was approved by the Cabinet. Media activists were happy. But the happiness was short lived.
Parallel to the strategy, a draft Press and Publications Law was rammed through the Cabinet last week. The first information about it came when it was revealed that the extraordinary session of parliament will include discussion of a new Press and Publications Law.
MP Jamil Nimri, who heads the National Guidance Committee in parliament, was surprised to see this law listed in the Royal Decree.
Minister Taher Odwan also was very unhappy. His resignation message, ironically posted on his Facebook page, revealed the discussions that took place in the Cabinet. He said the Cabinet discussed and rejected different efforts to curb the media, but that there are negative forces (apparently outside the Cabinet) who have a different agenda and succeeded in overcoming the government’s decision. He said that the draft Press and Publications Law, as well as two other laws, contradict the spirit and text of the media strategy and that he simply could not defend these laws.
Odwan’s resignation and the de facto deflation of the recommendation in the media strategy do not bode well for Jordan. Character assassination and other media transgressions do not justify reversing the reform trend that Jordan has been following for the past few months.
Unfortunately, the scepticism expressed by many who met the strategy committee appears to have been correct.
Jordan’s reform movement was given a hefty present with the Odwan resignation. The media strategy that his committee produced will now become the rallying cry for activists and media professionals, and officials will have no one but themselves to blame for this high-profile retraction of the media’s aspirations.