Legislative Challenges to the Audiovisual Media in Jordan

03/13/2015 12:20 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015

Jordan's Parliament is expected to discuss a new audiovisual law. The law fulfills the constitutional need of updating all temporary laws.

The current audiovisual law, issued in 2002, was seen as ushering in an end to government monopoly of airwaves. Tens of private radio and TV stations have since been licensed, but the sector has witnessed many distortions that media freedom activists hope will be corrected in the new law.

Zakaria Al Sheikh, the head of the parliamentary guidance committee, has been holding consultations with media owners and held a number of workshops and a two-day retreat in Aqaba in the hope of reaching consensus among members of his committee and other relevant groups, including the government. What emerged from these behind-the-scenes activities is a law that reportedly will abandon the clause which gives the Cabinet full power to license radio and TV stations or reject applications without giving a reason for the rejection.

Yet, this is not a way to go if the country wishes to attract investment. The new law will also end the practice of allowing business companies that work with government agencies not to pay license fees. Neither will it allow licensed broadcasters to get a waiver for the fees and advertise at the same time, which has been the case with a number of government-owned stations (army, police, Amman municipality). While this move is welcome as it attempts to create a level playing field, it fails to give a serious push to community media.

The Jordanian media strategy was adopted by the government calls for the need to support and strengthen community media. UNESCO, which calls it a sign of "media pluralism," defines community media as "an alternative medium to public and commercial media," community media engage in a social agenda amplifying views and concerns about context specific issues and facilitating public platforms for debate and discussion. They are independent, community owned and run media. UNESCO Jordan office, which is handling a 5-million-euro grant from the EU to improve Jordan's media, is conducting a six-month study of the media scene with the Copenhagen-based International Media Support (IMS). Among the issues UNESCO advised IMS to look into is the future of public service and community broadcasting in Jordan. Jordan Radio and TV Corporation (JRTV) was created by a separate law and does not fall under the authority of the audiovisual law. JRTV received some good news last week when the government agreed to allow news editors to bypass protocol in order to give priority to local and international news that has news value. The problem with the decision is that it was taken by a government official: Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour.

Jordan TV, like most Arab public broadcasters, is treated more like a government mouthpiece than a public service broadcaster. The general broadcast on March 3 did not reflect this decision; the day after agreeing to give editors the right to decide based on the value of the news, the broadcast was not much different. After a 15-minute speech by the King, at the beginning of the eight o'clock news, an important statement by the prime minister was broadcast about the rift between Muslim Brotherhood factions in Jordan, stating that the government did not take sides in this conflict.

Viewers of any public broadcast would have expected this statement to be followed by information about the conflict and interviews with the sides involved in it. But that did not happen. Some of the problems facing Jordan TV are financial. Household owners as well as offices and factories in Jordan, pay a monthly TV license fee of JD1, which is added to the electricity bill. The amount of money collected from the electricity bill, which goes to the Treasury, is said to average JD12-15 million. The annual budget lists JD30 million as going to JRTV. A further JD5 million revenue is brought into the TV budget from sales of ads and sponsorships.

The idea of a public service broadcaster having to run after ads to survive economically puts to question its ability to be a truly public service station.The problem is most acute during the month of Ramadan, which has the highest TV viewership. JRTV uses this season to bring in the largest amount of ad revenue and in the process, runs cheap game shows competing with the commercial stations, instead of being a quality public broadcaster.

During the discussions of the budget, an MP complained about the high budget of JRTV while a private station (Roya) is able to get a high viewership rate with a mere JD5 million a year. Jordan has a crowded and often chaotic audiovisual scene. At present, JRTV has a director general appointed by the government and the Audiovisual Commission has a separate director also appointed by the government. Both men are answerable to the government's media affairs minister who works out of the Prime Ministry.

Governments are not known to be good at managing or regulating media. International practice would demand that a country like Jordan create a public board reflecting the country's plurality and diversity and regulating the various competing entities of public, commercial and community broadcasters. With digital terrestrial broadcasting around the corner (July 2015), the time is ripe for a higher broadcasting board that ensures that the most powerful medium reaching the public (radio and TV) is pluralistic, diverse, complements each other and enables the sustainability of marginalized and underrepresented voices.