by Daoud Kuttab
In celebrating the successful investigative journalism feat carried out recently in private centres that house children with disabilities in Jordan, King Abdullah hosted at the Royal Palace two women Jordanian journalists who are involved in investigative journalism.
The meeting reveals much about what is needed for investigative journalism to get a major push in Jordan.
In welcoming Radio Al Balad's Hanan Khandakji and Jordan TV's Suha Karaja, King Abdullah praised the courage of the young journalists. The Jordan news agency, Petra, quoted His Majesty as saying, correctly, that investigative journalism is an important tool for monitoring and accountability.
Few breakthroughs happened in classical media content despite the proliferation of private newspapers, radio and television stations, as well as news websites and social media. High-quality journalistic content, therefore, and not media platforms, is needed to give media the coveted role of watchdog for the public good.
Khandakji, whose investigation published locally and internationally produced major changes in Jordan, asked during the meeting why the head of the Higher Council for Persons with Disabilities had her contract renewed three days after the independent committee chastised the council and the ministry for failing to spot the abuses. Her question reflected the kind of reporting that is unafraid of speaking the truth.
The Jordan TV reporter complained that the government puts obstacles in the way of reporters wanting to reveal wrongdoings, thus revealing a major weakness in Jordan's media landscape.
Furthermore, public television, perhaps the strongest media organ in Jordan, is still clearly a government mouthpiece. Funded by citizens' licence fees, as JD1 is added a month to every electricity bill in Jordan, Jordan's national television station is not operated as a public service, addressing public needs, but as an instrument of government authority and power.
Media in the 21st century cannot continue like this. In addition to the government's total monopoly over Jordan Radio and Television, the government, through the Social Security Corporation, still controls a majority of shares in Al Rai newspaper and 35 per cent of Ad Dustour's. Jordan does have an audiovisual law that allows for private ownership of radio and television, but the 2003 temporary law is restrictive, biased in favour of public or semi-public radio, and the TV is full of deficiencies, and in need of major restructuring and liberalisation.
Independent media associations are also restrictive. Journalists, editors and publishers all are required mandatory membership in the Jordan Press Association. Many radio, TV and online journalists are not represented in this syndicate, yet the Jordanian law states that no one is allowed to be called a journalist unless he/she is member of this one and only union.
No association exists for publishers, broadcasters or media support technicians. Despite these problems, the Jordan Press Association's current board has shown a less than average interest in media rights and freedoms.
Jordan is fortunate to have a number of media groups operating on its territory. Perhaps the most important group to carry out investigative journalism, not only in Jordan but in the entire region, is ARIJ — Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism — the group that provided technical support to Radio Al Balad's above-mentioned investigation.
A successful investigative journalism environment in any country requires liberal media laws, especially a freedom of information act (FOIA). While Jordan has its FOIA, the law is weak and without teeth. Journalists or the public requesting information are often turned down and the law provides little legal power to force public bodies to acquiesce to such demands. Furthermore, public officials are rarely willing to comply with a simple request for information or comment from a growing number of journalists who routinely request information.
The recent move by King Abdullah to publicly support investigative journalism and journalists is a step in the right direction. However, for this step to be translated into action on the ground, a number of legislative and administrative actions needs to be taken by both government and journalists so that the media can assume their proper role as the fourth estate