Travels with Auntie: From the horse’s mouth
Sometimes I love my job. I have just spent a week with a group of senior Jordanian and Palestinian journalists in Amman. Interesting, stimulating and sometimes a pretty rough ride — don’t mention the Balfour Declaration…
Our first challenge was actually getting the journalists to the course. For three weeks we attempted to get one of our participants out of Gaza to Jordan and for another three weeks we tried to get him into Egypt. We failed on both counts and this was before events in Gaza exploded last week.
The next challenge was facing up to Aid Exhaustion which is felt by both Jordanians and Palestinians. It is quite difficult to hear that those who should be benefitting from the multitudinous programes thrown at them by donors are in fact disillusioned by them and suspicious of their outcomes. Balancing that out though, was the passion each participant showed for trying to make some sort of difference and support their countrymen and women and their nations.
Both Palestine and Jordan have lively, diverse, experienced media sectors. And many of the things we discussed would resonate with any British/American/European journalist: newspapers are dropping in circulation due to the growing importance of online media; online media is proliferating but unless a punter sees it on Jordan TV or reads it in Al Dustoor, they don’t believe it; the big state Broadcasters are over-managed and creaky; journalists are badly paid and not universally respected; local radio stations are proliferating but the quality is variable …. So far, so similar.
But then the big differences come in.
To start with Jordan: King Abdullah has always been very firm about the need for freedom of expression and freedom of the press but circumstances have become more difficult. The Arab Spring has meant more pressure for reform at a time when the economic situation in the country is deteriorating. The Syrian conflict next door has brought an influx of refugees into this country which has already absorbed so many. The West has always relied on Jordan as a steady hand in a volatile region and brings its own pressures to bear.
What this has led to is what was described to me as a “wavering” in the ability to publish/broadcast/write freely. As the pressure mounts on government, government becomes less amenable to criticism and debate. Self censorship is exercised for the “good of the nation”. The best example of this is in the reporting of the abolition of food subsidies due to the worsening economic situation. As you can imagine, this is not a popular decision as household budgets will rocket, but the pressure is on for the press to invoke the spirit of the blitz, knuckle down, support the decision and maybe even play a few patriotic songs.
The other thing that has generated huge debate is the recent amendments to the press law which are seen as restrictive and inviting interference. Resisting this interference for individuals is tough – but if the resistance doesn’t come from journalists themselves, it won’t succeed.
Palestine is a whole different ball game. We’ve seen this week how easily shattered any peace is in Gaza. And the price that people pay. The situation is complicated beyond belief with a split government in Gaza and the West Bank and effective partition.
One of my Palestinian colleagues gave me a brief lesson in history. He saw the development of the press in three stages:
1. Until 1994 the Palestinian media was united behind a national cause – the end of occupation
2. 1994-2005 was an era of self censorship. The presidency, government and security services could not accept any criticism – particularly the presidency. Speaking against the presidency was “more than a taboo”.
3.2006 onwards is a new era – an unprecedented era. Politics, corruption, the economy are all up for grabs. You can write more or less anything. The taboos remain however for some social issues such as honor killings. And as he told me, “The only common thing is the occupation. You could write the same story every day for ten years and the audience would be happy.”
This new freedom for the press has come about because the leadership believes in freedom of the press I was told. The one thing they don’t accept is unsubstantiated personal attacks. If someone is corrupt and can be proved to be so, it is open house but there is little acceptance of rumours “from the street”.
The proximity of Israel has had its effect. The Palestinian audience looks across the wall at the free press there and asks questions. The satellite TV Channels like Al Jazeera and BBC Arabic TV have also had their effect, although Palestine dropped from the headlines during the Arab Spring.
Two other interesting things are the proliferation of local outlets and the influence of social media. Local radio stations are springing up like daisies. My favourite story is of the vegetable seller who wanted more business, so started up his own station to promote his vegetables – sales are up. This proliferation is great for the audience in many ways but the downside is the drop in quality at some stations and the dilution of audience for others.
Social and online media offers more insight. There is a split between the secular and the religious. The West Bank is more secular. And as it was described to me, “Palestinians, in their blood, they are politicians,” which means that there is a you are with me or you are against me mentality. The online sector seems weaker than that in Jordan but the use of social media is greater – especially for campaigning.
So, how do you sum this up with a pithy last paragraph? Clearly, I can’t. The really interesting thing for me is meeting journalistic colleagues striving to produce excellent work in circumstances which mitigate against it. Would I be brave enough to publish a piece which might instigate a call from the mukhabarat? I don’t think so.