THE BLOG
05/20/2013 04:07 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2013

Fighting for Media Freedoms in Arab region

Thirteen years ago, the Vienna-based International Press Institute held a regional conference in Amman to deal with press freedom issues in the Arab region.

At the time, I was invited to speak at the conference about my work: using the Internet to fight censorship. I was also pleased to hear from the then-minister of information that the country would become an Internet hub and was encouraging the unhindered use of the Internet for exchange of information.

At the time, I suggested setting up an Internet radio in the country, where radio was still a government monopoly, and was encouraged to do so by officials.

Using the promises made at the IPI conference, and with help from UNESCO and the Open Society Foundation, I set up the Arab world's first Internet radio (ammannet.net) with the aim of training radio journalists that don't practise self censorship.

Within a few years, and as promised, the audiovisual sector received a boost by a temporary law that allowed for the first time the private ownership of radio frequencies.

By 2005, we got a 10-year licence for an FM station (now called Radio Al Balad). Tens of other FM radio stations (mostly commercial) were licensed, as were several university-based radio stations outside the capital. But radio licensing failed to break the prevalent culture.

Attempts at introducing investigative journalism had limited success even though Jordan was the first Arab country to introduce an access to information law.

This toothless law failed to break up the anti-transparency culture, playing into the hands of people who decided to use the Internet to circumvent existing platforms and restrictive laws.

Traditional media failed to satisfy the hunger for information of a very young population, leaving the field open; the Internet was thus convenient in a country that had long embraced globalisation.

Jordan experienced an explosion of news websites that complemented an explosion in online creativity as well as an almost world record number of social media participants (Facebook subscriptions, for example reached nearly two million).

With this explosion of websites, chaos also happened. Coupled with the new found courage following the Arab Spring, new websites became political battlegrounds for change and reform, especially for fighting corruption.

At the same time, the chaos allowed a misuse of information, with some website owners smearing a host of public and private individuals.

Attempts to deal with this issue produced two important recommendations by royallyl-initiated committees. The recommendations called for professionalisation of the media, breaking open the journalists' union and initiating self-regulatory bodies to curtail media abuse.

However, the recommendations of the National Agenda and the Media Strategy Plan were not implemented by successive governments, leaving traditional media incapable to deal with the young public's or the anti-government forces' desire to use the Internet for political purposes.

Unable to curtail online cases of undocumented "character assassination", the government moved to curtail news websites.

An amendment to the Press and Publications Law obliging local websites that publish news and commentary to be licensed by the Press and Publications Department was railroaded in Parliament.

Also website owners are obliged to be responsible for all content including commentary.

The new amendment was rejected by many Jordanian journalists and human rights activists.

The current prime minister who opposed it when he was in Parliament moved to make sure it is not implemented and the amendment might be rescinded.

Much reform is needed to raise Jordan's media standing despite the fact that the current government has been much more inclined to press freedom issues and was not blamed for any major case of press freedom violation or restriction of journalists.

Holding the IPI congress in Amman this week is a positive change that should be used to kickstart badly needed media reforms. It will be helpful to use this opportunity to adopt the mechanisms needed for a truly free media in the country.