The Jordanian public has been mesmerised these past weeks with the casino case debate in parliament, in which senior government officials have been charged with a variety of administrative errors and crimes. The 70-page detailed report faults 33 individuals, including the prime minister, with wrongdoing. But while the parliament and country have been focused on the actions of the first Bakhit government, a much more serious strategic problem was revealed in these findings.
A close read of the report shows a dysfunctional, chaotic system surrounding the prime ministry. The detailed report of the parliamentary committee exposes a haphazard institution which lacks basic checks and balances needed for the proper functioning of a government. It is not clear whether some of the problems present during the first Bakhit government continue today.
The short-lived (actually average for Jordanian Cabinets) Samir Rifai government reformed the workings of the prime ministry. A detailed institutional structure was issued and became policy after its publication in the Official Gazette. On paper, the Rifai reforms include the institution of a proper secretariat, a strategic planning department, a department for major projects and a fully development media department, as well as an internal inspection department.
It is not clear if these reforms introduced by Rifai have been introduced and are functioning in Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit’s government. A quick look at February’s Khaled Shahin case shows many holes in the functioning of government. Shahin, a convicted businessman serving a three-year prison term, secured "legal" permission to leave the country without the government having any recourse of bringing him back. He reportedly left for treatment in the US, only to be seen enjoying London’s restaurants.
Talking to the press, the prime minister said that the government was investigating the details of the case and tried to blame doctors who gave medical reports for the legal exit of the corrupt businessman.
Some might argue that the problem is not in the structure of the government but in the vagueness of the relationship between the three branches of government as well as between the government and the Palace. There is no doubt that the executive branch has far too great powers compared to the legislative and judicial authorities. Unwritten laws and spheres of influence also abound, without means of checking them.
The fourth estate, the media, must be credited with having exposed some of the issues that are now the cause of these investigations. What is needed is for Jordan to continue the media reform process rather than curtail it. The most recent amendments to the Press and Publications Law, the penal code and the Anti-Corruption Law do not bode well for freedom of expression. The resignation of Taher Odwan, a veteran independent journalist turned minister, over these restrictive amendments is a huge red flag that should not be ignored.
The possibility of criminalisation of freedom of expression under the guise of protecting individuals from character assassination should not be allowed to pass if Jordan is serious about reform. Officials must understand that media criticism is part of the package that comes by choosing to become public servants.
The Jordanian elite, made up of current and former government officials, business and security forces, has for too long been immune to public scrutiny. While having the prime minister publicly dragged through the process of impeachment was difficult, it was also healthy and educational.
From these interactions springs the need for serious reform in the way government functions and the continuation of media reform in order to allow the latter to be the watchdog of the government.
The past few months witnessed major changes in public sentiment. People have been courageous in going out in the streets and make their demands known. This newly found freedom is expressed in old media, new media and social media. Attempting to muzzle the media will reflect a government that is unwilling to accept criticism. Furthermore, any attempt to seriously control electronic media will certainly fail in Jordan, as it has around the world. A much healthier policy would be to encourage the reform of both the public sector and of the legislative and administrative environment, to allow for independent, robust media in Jordan.