EU Support for the Jordanian Media


This piece interrogates the challenges of advancing media reform initiatives within authoritarian contexts. Based on a case study of the EU-funded Support to Media in Jordan Project—launched in the wake of the Arab Spring—it reveals how the local mediation of internationally sponsored reform efforts allows authoritarian regimes to ingratiate themselves to external partners while blocking meaningful change on the ground.

Introduction

For three decades running, the Hashemite regime in Jordan has worked, and tirelessly so, to cultivate a narrative of political progress. The story presented to the citizenry and the international community alike is one of a stable and democratizing state, of a country made into a bastion of hope in a region otherwise ravaged by civil war, repression and economic collapse. Though difficult to determine whether external audiences have been moved by this discourse or by the regime’s enduring strategic utility, the end result is ultimately the same: Jordan has come to rank amongst the highest recipients of US and European democracy promotion aid.

Following the uprisings of 2011 and King Abdullah’s promises of political reform in 2012, the European Union decided to scale up such aid flows considerably. Between 2014 and 2020, it would allocate approximately €80 million per year for the purpose of “strengthening the rule of law”, operationally focusing on matters not only of justice but of decentralization, political elections or media.1Read in PDF To set these figures in a comparative context, the €80 in question is double the material support that is offered to the cause of democracy in Morocco, one of the EU’s other key partners in the region.2Read in PDF

This paper is to focus on the media aspect of the EU’s investments in Jordanian democracy. The investigation centers on the Support to Media in Jordan (STMJO)project, an EU-funded, UNESCO-implemented initiative that ran between 2014 and 2018. Fieldwork was conducted between 2017 and 2021 over the course of a number of extensive stays in Amman, and consisted of open-ended interviews with EU and UNESCO diplomats, Jordanian journalists and civil society actors, and representatives of Jordanian media institutions. For safety and privacy reasons, the names of interviews have been anonymized.

The analysis will speak to two broader phenomena: (i) Europe’s weak understanding of local political contexts in the Middle East and North Africa and (ii) the extent to which local actors—in this case, the Jordanian Royal Court and the domestic security forces—can use “democracy promotion” projects to bolster their own interests while blocking substantive reform.

Who controls international aid in Jordan?

The parameters of the Support to Media in Jordan (STMJO) project itself were negotiated by the office of the Jordanian Prime Minister and the EU delegation to Jordan. According to a source from the delegation, this process spanned several years (between 2012 and 2014) due to the Jordanian team’s stonewalling tactics and the generalized reluctance they exhibited when it came to committing to substantive reforms. Once a deal was eventually reached, project implementation, per the contract agreed to, was nominally turned over to officials from UNESCO. That said, all forthcoming UNESCO-led operations relevant to the project would still need to be validated by a steering committee that was comprised of representatives of media outlets, the Jordan Press Association, government officials and the EU delegation. Throughout, the comings and goings of the STMJO was also to remain closely overseen by the Prime Minister through the Ministry of State for Media Affairs.3The Jordanian Ministry of Media was abolished in 2001 because it had devolved into a mechanism of propaganda, and was then replaced by the Ministry of State for Media Affairs, which remains under the supervision of the Prime Ministry. Finally, keeping a close eye on proceedings as well would be the Diwan (or Royal Court) and the General Intelligence Directorate (GID)4On the roles played by the Royal Court and GID as concerns the media, see: Media Influence Matrix: Jordan, C.E.U. Center for Media, Data and Society, 2019, Budapest., the dual centers of Jordanian power. 5Read our article “When repression leaves the shadow

For any number of reasons, this was a problematic organization and distribution of labor. The aforementioned steering committee was compromised by dint of some if its members being royal appointees and therefore susceptible to the influence of the Diwan. The Ministry of State for Media Affairs was compromised by both limited capacity and abundant conflicts of interest: its office employed only three employees after all, and its director held mandates encompassing both the regulation of media policy and the management of the regime’s public communications. Journalists and civil society organizations, the erstwhile beneficiaries of the STMJO, finally had a marginal influence in decision-making process compared to the appendages of the state itself.

The EU action and its success stories

International aid actors need success stories to legitimate their action abroad. In the case of Jordan and the STMJO project, the EU has argued it was successful in increasing media freedom and improving journalistic professionalism despite encountering considerable political blockages. For evidence of this, they point to two of the project’s initiatives in particular: a Media and Information Literacy (MIL) program and a comprehensive assessment of media performance.

Developed by UNESCO, the agenda of the MIL program was to enhance citizens’ abilities when it comes to critically assessing online content. Under the STMJO, this agenda was materially advanced through integrating MIL materials into university curricula and through financing the training of Jordanian teachers and journalists on the issue of online media literacy. Operationally speaking, much of this work was outsourced to the Jordan Media Institute (JMI), a journalism training center established by Princess Rim of Jordan and personally supported by King Abdullah II.6The JMI was created in 2006 by the wife of the King’s brother with the aim of becoming a leading center in media education and raise journalism standards in Jordan and the region. Its influence is considerable at the regional level, largely due to the unique standing of Princess Rim herself, who was once a journalist with the American news network CNN. JMI became the first Jordanian organization to set up MIL activities, in partnership with many foreign organizations including UNESCO. The objective of the comprehensive assessment of media performance, meanwhile, was to identify policy areas in most need of reform. Operationally, the conduct of this assessment was outsourced to a consortium of local and international researchers, who evaluated Jordanian laws and practices concerning press freedoms against UNESCO’s Media Development Indicators (MDI).

An autopsy of the Media and Information Literacy (MIL) Program suggests that it achieved at least some of what it set out to do. This result can be partially (and paradoxically) attributed to exigencies presented by the emergence of ISIS. Having recruited no small number of Jordanians to their cause, ISIS’s growing strength in the middle of the last decade forced questions of online radicalization into the center of the Hashemite regime’s political agenda, all the more so after the organization managed to stage attacks in Jerash, Kerak or Fuheis between 2016 and 2019. In this context, the promotion of media and information literacy was suddenly elevated into a security prerogative. Jointly regarded as preventative measure that might obstruct ISIS’s capacity to recruit local youth and as a means for ingratiating the regime to its external partners, MIL wound up being actively supported by a regime hitherto content to view such initiatives suspiciously, and making a considerable impact as a result.

As it is illuminating of the regime’s conditional commitments to democratic reform, one ought note that the professions tasked with leading critical MIL interventions and with more generally nurturing civically responsible younger generations into being—teachers and journalists—were both subjected to intensifying state repression from 2019 forward. After the longest public-sector strike in contemporary Jordanian history, the teachers’ union was suspended and a thousand teachers arrested in October 2019. Journalists, meanwhile, have had to deal with ceaseless websites ban, arbitrary arrest, and daily censorship.

As for the assessment of media performance, there is little to criticize in terms of the research itself. The publication that the consortium of researchers furnished was impressive, documenting that a majority of Jordanian newspapers are owned by the state (through the Social Security Corporation) and that the Petra News Agency functions mostly as transmission belt for state-issued discourse. Their report established as well that both the Jordan Press Association (JPA)—the only legalized trade union for journalists—and the Jordan Media Commission (JMC), the institution in charge of media regulation, suffer from constant political interference.7The JPA president has always been selected from the senior editorial staff of the two state dailies, Al Rai and Ad Dustour. The wider executive council has also historically been comprised of journalists from the state-owned papers. The JMC’s main responsibilities lie in licensing and registration for media outlets and in monitoring their compliance with Jordanian law. While presented as an independent organization, the JMC director general—granted extensive discretionary authorities by dint of the absence of a governing board—is an appointee of the Council of Ministers. The researchers also appropriately identified the elements of Jordanian law that render media professionals vulnerable to state repression.

On the basis of the data gathered, the report’s authors recommended that efforts be undertaken toward securing the independence of media institutions and governance bodies. They also advocated for reforms to those laws most directly implicated in the persecution of journalists, namely the Cyber Crimes law; articles 1188Article 118 says that “anyone performing actions, writings or speeches without government authorization that expose the kingdom to the threat of aggression or undermine its relations with a foreign state can be imprisoned for a minimum of five years”
Article 188(1) defines libel as: “Expressing certain information about someone, even if in the form of doubting or questioning, which would offend his or her reputation and dignity or expose him or her to people’s hatred or loathing, whether or not the acts alleged in such information would constitute criminal conduct.”
Article 4 requires journalists to report “within the law and the framework of protecting public freedoms, rights and obligations and respecting the privacy of others”.
Article 5 bars publications from publishing material “inconsistent with the principles of freedom, national obligation, human rights and Arab and Islamic values”
Under Article 7 journalists must refrain from “publishing anything that might incite violence or discord among citizens”
and 188 of the Penal Code; and articles 4, 5 and 7 of the Press and Publications Law.

Alas, despite the funding and energy invested—the latter of which included organizing meetings with media law experts and providing trainings and advisory services for Jordanian officials—not a single one of the recommendations proposed was actually implemented by the time the STMJO wrapped up its work.9Project evaluation of the European Union funded project “Support to media in Jordan”, Forcier Consulting, 2019.

This disappointing outcome invites a crucial question: what stops critical reforms from actually being instituted in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan?

The art of reform without change

In explaining why STMJO failed to facilitate substantive progress as relates to the freedom of the press in Jordan, one must begin with the mediation of local actors.

From the start, the Jordanian authorities engaged the EU’s media project with a two-point agenda. On the one hand, they accepted the need to appear compliant with the reform push, cognizant of how essential external financing is to the state’s fiscal viability. On the other, they remained committed to obstructing any real change, cognizant that proper reform could open the door to political unrest.

The authorities were particularly successful in striking this balance when it came to matters concerning the independence of media institutions and governance bodies. They weaponized, for instance, their influence over the Jordan Press Association’s executive leadership to block EU-backed measures aimed at expanding union membership to persons working in non-traditional media, creating new institutions for public oversight of the media10For instance, the JPA’s leadership obstructed an EU project that would have established a watchdog media organization. , and instituting union pluralism. Stopping union pluralism from being instituted was especially important to the regime’s interests. It meant, after all, that JPA membership alone would continue to dictate whether a person came under the protections of what limited legal rights are afforded journalists in Jordan.11 arts. 2 and 20 of the Press and Publications Law. In practice, this allowed the appointed executive staff of the JPA to continue withholding critical legal protections from potential dissidents.

The authorities proved themselves equally deft at manipulating the Jordanian Media Commission (JMC) for the purposes of impeding the development of independent local media. As agreed under the terms of the STMJO, the JMC was to license community radio stations in various governorates to foster decentralization and support new media companies. Citing security reasons, however, the JMC’s Director General—a political appointee of the Jordanian Council of Ministers—simply refused to do so. Despite numerous journalists and international organizations raising strong opposition, his intervention sufficed to stop the initiative in its tracks, forcing the EU to redirect allocated funds toward support university radio stations in Amman instead.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the regime also leveraged its influence to discreetly snuff out the EU’s legislative agenda. As was intimated earlier, EU officials associated with STMJO had primarily targeted amendments to those articles of the Penal Code which the regime had often leaned on to silence expression and dissent—namely, “public slander and libel crimes” (art.188-199) and “terrorist crimes” (art. 118). EU officials had also sought reform to the Cyber Crime Law. The Cyber Crime Law had been brought into force in 2015 for the nominal purpose of fighting online defamation, but had often been used to muzzle journalists through subjecting them to the austere jurisprudence of the State Security Court.12Falling under the general purview of public security, cases involving cyber crime are heard under the State Security Court, a military-run institution closely tied to the diwan. The law’s vague definition of electronic crime— “publish(ing) or republish(ing) information that involves defamation, insulting or defaming any person”–affords the authorities in question wide interpretive remit in bringing cases as well as austere sentencing powers: convictions are punishable by up to three months in prison.

Noble as the EU’s intentions were, their efforts came to naught. According to an official EU review of the STMJO Project, this could be attributed to their initiative receiving less support in parliament than was anticipated and to the obstructionist interventions that were mobilized by “lower-level government officials.” Data collected during fieldwork, however, gives credence to an alternative thesis: that the Diwan and/or security services, working behind the scenes, ensured the cool reception with which the media reform agenda was greeted in the House of Representatives—and the bureaucratic interference that hindered its momentum as well.

Hiba Abu Taha, a Jordanian journalist who contributes to the Qatari channel Al Jazeera or the London-based website Al Araby al Jadeed, was charged with slander in 2020 over a 2012 interview where she called for a change of government in Jordan. Zaki Bani Irsheid, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, was sentenced to 18-months imprisonment for “disturbing (Jordan’s) relations with a foreign state” considered as a terrorist crime, because he wrote critical comments about the United Arab Emirates on Facebook.

Conclusion

In the wake of STMJO project, the EU seems to have stopped most of its activities in the media sector. Their reasoning, in the words of one EU representative: “I do not see what more we can offer, we have tried everything but it does not work”.

Recent events suggest things are hopeless indeed. In the summer of 2021, the Canadian NGO Journalists for Human Rights, particularly active in supporting Jordanian journalists, had to close its office in the country after being economically stifled and hampered in its activities by political officials. A few months later, at the very moment that the Pandora Papers’ global investigation were causing an outcry by revealing the hidden property empire of Jordanian King Abdullah, the website of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)—where the investigation was published—was blocked inside Jordan. Under pressure from the security services, most local media were forced into not covering the revelations as well.

Europe’s difficulties in reforming the media sector illuminates two things about aid and politics in contemporary Jordan. First, it sheds light on Jordanian political elite’s capacity to control externally sponsored reform initiatives. Second, it reveals international aid actors’ suboptimal modus operandi: in seeking quick success stories while turning a blind eye to the underlying realities of power, they ensure their own inefficacy.

Looking forward, one ought be wary of reform initiatives pushed within authoritarian contexts. So long as priorities reside in security and political stability, these efforts are likely to pave a road to nowhere.


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