An uncensored look at the state of the media in Jordan

Ruba Saqr
Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.(Photo: Jordan News)
One of my former public relations clients, a foreign company with worldwide branches, once had a problem that escalated pretty quickly. Overnight and out of nowhere, online news websites started targeting the company with false media reports. Their nefarious objective was to extort the company’s marketing team to force their hand into placing ads on their platforms, in exchange for making the reports go away.اضافة اعلان

To make a long story short, soon after, mainstream print media got infected with the same bug and started reprinting those false reports without ever bothering to fact–check the information or to contact the company’s leadership for their side of the story.

To remedy the situation, meetings with several chief editors and reporters from mainstream media were arranged as part of the crisis-management process. With one exception, they all agreed to stop rerunning the fabricated news in their print newspapers.

This one exception, however, is a story that needs to be told if we are to truly reform the media.

With a cigar between his fingers and a rosary on his wrist, this man was the chief editor of a print newspaper. He was also the owner of an online news website.

The CEO of the multinational corporation and I invited him over for dinner to explain the falsehoods in the reports targeting the company. Surprisingly, the editor, in more ways than one, asked the CEO to place ads on the website he owned in return for killing the story in the newspaper that employed him.

We met him in his capacity as chief editor of a print newspaper, not as owner of an online website. Therefore, what he did was nothing short of straightforward conflict of interest, abuse of power and blackmail.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the two chief editors who showed a great degree of respectability and professionalism were a woman chief editor and the editor of an English-speaking daily.

But neither one thought the phenomenon of “extortion in exchange for ads” was worth reporting on.

Bottom line: the Jordanian media rarely if ever report on their own failings, or the numerous breaches of journalism ethics that happen in broad daylight. Local media institutions, and their defenders, would rather pose as victims of censorship and champions of freedom of speech, a far more appealing look for the tenants of the “fourth estate”.

Hubris is certainly not a foreign concept to many Jordanian institutions that hide behind a well-curated utopian vision of their less idealistic reality.

To hide serious faults in the educational system, schools repeat verses from classical Arabic poetry to sentimentalize the “greatness” of a teacher’s mission. Parliament often points the finger at government despite the fact that the Lower House is plagued by corruption, lack of professionalism, and excessive populism. Government hides behind the achievements of security forces (which are far more efficient than the public sector) to evade true leadership and accountability. And the media brush their unethical crumbs under the rug to create an embellished image of themselves.

To end this vicious cycle of self-aggrandizement and achieve lasting and meaningful reform, we need to start telling the uncensored story about every aspect of Jordanian life. Honest self-evaluation with a dose of humility and accountability can do wonders to get us there.

Against this background, early this month, a report was released about media freedom in Jordan, in a way recycling the same old narrative about the victimhood of the media.

The report by the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ), titled “Shackled”, rated Jordan as “restricted” for the second year in a row. None of its six sections, though, tackled journalism ethics or even attempted to evaluate the state of media professionalism – in terms of how reports were being written and whether they signaled adequate adherence to the principles of journalism.

Not including a section on media professionalism and ethics is a poor attempt to suggest that the media are perfect in their martyrdom, which is definitely not the case.

Shedding a strong light on the stories of unethical conduct and corruption in the Jordanian media is a must if we are to paint a fair and balanced image of media freedoms in the country.

The dominant narrative has been one-sided so far, meaning that many stories have been left untold, allowing the media to pose as arbiters of truth and victims of the authorities. To demand that the government be more accountable for its actions, the media themselves should come from a place of self-evaluation, accountability and credibility.

In “Shackled”, one section is interestingly dubbed “freedom of expression and press online”, and like other sections, it received a “restricted” rating. According to Jordan News, “it examined the extent of online freedom of journalists, activists, and users of social media platforms”.

Naturally, there is a clear distinction between professional online journalism and off-the-cuff comments by social media users who do not have to adhere to the same professional and ethical principles as journalists. Not making this distinction and lumping online journalism with activism and social media reflects a lack of methodology and seriously hurts the credibility of the report.

Studies about the media situation in Jordan need to be based on insight, neutrality and objectivity. We also need to start hearing the full story about the state of the local media, about both their achievements and their challenges.

Several local newspapers have already pushed the envelope on social issues that were once taboo. Tackling gender-based violence against women and sexual abuse of children  is indication of real change that is worthy of mention. Yet, no report about the state of the media in Jordan has been documenting these serious leaps, offering us a fragmented image of reality.

We need to change the narrative and examine both good and bad realities of the Jordanian media. We cannot continue to be stuck in the previous century with its leftist lingo of victimhood. What we need is clear-eyed personal responsibility, perceptive self-awareness, and accountability.

Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and head of a PR agency.

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