Amid ‘tough environment,’ journalists mark World Press Freedom Day

(Photo: Freepik)
AMMAN — Journalists around the world celebrate World Press Freedom Day today, an international occasion started by UNESCO to celebrate press freedom, support journalists targeted by censorship, and commemorate those who have lost their lives exercising their profession. But for journalists in Jordan, the day is a reminder of how far journalism in Jordan still has to go to achieve freedom of the press. اضافة اعلان

The 2021 World Press Freedom Index ranked Jordan 129th out of 180 countries, dropping one point in a continued decline in ranking over the past few years. Likewise, the Freedom House’s 2021 ranking scored Jordan 23/60 on civil liberties, which includes freedom of expression. 

Producing authentic journalism in Jordan is “very difficult”, according to . Bayan Tal, a career journalist and former senior adviser at the Jordan Media Institute. “Journalists have two jobs. They are to provide information — to tell the story — and to hold officials accountable and individuals accountable,” she said. “We’re constantly either slammed with gag orders when we have an issue to discuss and uncover, or slammed with legislation and restrictive laws that restrict the work of journalists. It’s a tough environment.”

Press freedom violations in Jordan include everything from the jailing of journalists to the restriction of the right to information, according to Mohammad Shamma, a Reporters Without Borders (RSF) correspondent. “Many journalists are talking about the hidden violations, like access to information,” he said, claiming that many journalists “believe that this is really a huge violation.”

He pointed out that government press conferences are only accessible to a limited number of journalists, who are often unable to ask questions. “We believe also the (freedom of press) violations in (relation to) the COVID-19 situation became really huge. We still had violations before 2020, but they became worse.”

Basil Okoor, the editor-in-chief of Jordanian news website Jo24, relayed his own experience with censorship, which ended in a brief stint in jail and social media outcry. Okoor, who described journalism in Jordan as “almost an impossible mission”, was arrested for covering the teachers’ syndicate protests — and then “became the first hashtag in the country on Twitter” as outraged citizens criticized his arrest on Twitter. Protesters staged demonstrations outside of the police department. Okoor was released, in his words, “because of that huge reaction in social media and between journalists.”

However, he has still faced challenges reporting freely. Okoor recalled the government shutdown of his Youtube page, where he had covered political protests and gathered over 5 million viewers and 225,000 subscribers. “I’m still trying to continue doing my job. “I am not a politician. I am not an activist. I am a journalist, covering what is happening,” he said. “And (the government) doesn’t accept the idea of having an independent journalist or independent news outlet.”

Several experts suggested that government interference with independent media leads to national distrust in local media, pointing out that Jordanians often turn to international media sources to cover events in their own country. 

“This is very serious, when people do not trust their own media,” said Tal. “How is the government or the state going to deliver its message?” 

The distrust also colors citizens’ perception of the government: “Trust is very important between any government and its people,” said Yahya Shuqeir, head of the Press Freedom Committee at the Jordan Press Association. 

“The government believes that information is a gift from the government to the people,” Shuqeir said. “No, it is a right. Information and access to governmental documents, it has many positive aspects on economic freedom, investment, fighting corruption and wrongdoing of the government.”

That distrust in the media and the government, then, leads to the spread of misinformation and resentment among the people. “When the information is not available, (people) tend to create their own version of stories,” said Tal. People “take advantage of the lack of information and they provide false information. So people base their decisions on false information, which means a spread in conspiracy theories, hate, in violence, in disrespect, in lack of trust.” 

Several experts also pointed to the intensive framework of laws that govern press outlets in Jordan as a major barrier to freedom of press. “Journalists’ work in Jordan is controlled by several types of criminal laws which means that their work might lead them to face fine or prison sentences,” said Sakher Al-Khasawneh, a lawyer and professor of media law at the Jordan Media Institute. “So the main challenge is that so many laws and restrictions govern their work.” 

Similarly, Shuqeir said that “we have a forest of laws which deprive journalists from criticizing the government and state agencies, especially in the Penal Code.” 

He specifically cited laws against defamation of state agencies, and also the “discretional authority” of judges to “prosecute opponents of the government.” He added that though Jordan was the first country to join the Open Government Partnership in 2011 outside of its founders, which is a partnership started in the United States based on transparency, good governance, participation of people, and access to information. However, the country has yet to amend its freedom of access to information law to meet international standards and fulfill its promises in the partnership.

“Even burning the American flag, according to the (US) Supreme Court, is freedom of expression,” Shuqeir added. “Here it is very dangerous, even to criticize the Ministry of Education.”

There is at least one bright spot in the Jordan media sphere: Tal praised the government’s adoption of a national strategy on media and information literacy in 2019, which will integrate training on media literacy into schools, universities, youth centers, and in the public sphere.

Ikhlas Al-Khawaldeh, UNESCO Amman’s program officer, said that UNESCO is “leading the worldwide efforts for media information literacy” through podcasts and other activities that battle disinformation and hate speech.  “Especially in this period of the COVID-19 pandemic we saw that information can be a matter of life or death,” Khawaldeh said. “Truth is needed now more than ever.” She added that “The quality of journalism is also very connected to the freedom. If (freedom) is high, the quality is high.”

“We’re still here, we’re still fighting, we’re still trying to do our job, to uncover the truth, to cover what is happening in the country despite all those obstacles and limitations,” said Okoor. “We are willing to pay the price.”

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