Princess Rym of Jordan has called for a transition of the state-owned media to public control, to stop channels being used as a ‘mouthpiece’ for the government.
Much of Jordan’s media is under tight state control, a situation that has attracted criticism from press freedom groups and which was a factor behind recent protests by local journalists.
Princess Rym, who is married to a member of Jordan’s royal family, said that the local media should “transition” from state to public control.
“It would make sense for government media to transition into proper public media, rather than [being a] government mouthpiece,” she told Al Arabiya News. “People pay taxes... for the TV. So it should really have more of a public dimension.”
Princess Rym was speaking in a personal capacity as founder of the Jordan Media Institute (JMI), a non-profit institution that runs courses in journalism. She has a background in media herself, having worked for outlets such as CNN, where she began as a producer in 1998 and later worked as a Baghdad correspondent from 2001 until 2004.
Jordan declined by six places in the Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom Index, with the country ranking behind countries such as Colombia, Libya and Zimbabwe.
In October and November this year employees of the government-owned Jordan Press Foundation (JPF), which publishes al-Rai and The Jordan Times, staged protests and one-day strike over the government’s appointment of a former minister as JPF’s chairman. Employees of the newspapers urged for more freedom and independence when deciding editorial policies.
Jordan has also come under fire for blocking hundreds of news websites, under a controversial 2012 law that requires such sites to be licensed. In June, international rights groups slammed Jordan’s decision to block unlicensed sites, saying the move amounted to censorship.
Much of the country’s local media is state-run, such as Jordan Radio and Television, which runs several channels.
Princess Rym pointed to public-ownership models such as the BBC in the United Kingdom, which is funded by a license fee paid by viewers.
“It’s really a government media [in Jordan],” she said. “I’d like to see much more participation, much more dialogue… I think it’s now very much a time for a debate and discussing it.”
Princess Rym spoke on Nov 30 at the close of the Al Arabiya Global News Discussion, which saw three expert panel sessions discuss the theme “bridging the communication gap between East and West.” The event was held to mark the relaunch of this website and its new View More video service.
Princess Rym told Al Arabiya News about her career as a journalist and current work at the Jordan Media Institute.
Q&A with Her Royal Highness Princess Rym Ali of Jordan
Q. Jordan has seen recent protests by journalists, and the country declined in the Reporters Without Borders (RWB) Press Freedom Index 2013. What’s your response to that?
As far as the Jordan Media Institute is concerned, our role is first to train journalists to the highest level, but also train them to… exercise their right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by the constitution. [Given the recent] protests, there is a debate currently in Jordan about how this is going to be going forward. There are issues with government media in Jordan. And issues need to be solved.
Q. Tell us about the Jordan Media Institute and its work in 2013
In September, the institute graduated its fourth intake of students. It provides a parallel track: on the one hand there’s the academic track, which is an Arabic-language practical one-year master’s degree. And on the other hand there’s the training. We’ve reached the point where not only are we running it and we’re graduating students, but that also our students have been finding jobs. And that’s quite a nice indication of the fact that I hope we’re preparing them for real life in the field.
Q. You attended Columbia University’s School of Journalism. How does the Jordan Media Institute course differ from the education you received?
I’ve always said very openly that I was inspired by the Columbia curriculum when we designed the curriculum for the Jordan Media Institute. We were very lucky that we were able to call on experts from Columbia, from City University [in London], from the journalism school in Lille, France... So we got everyone together and we really hashed out what we thought would be the best curriculum to be both practical and relevant to our region. A lot of what I took away from Columbia was the practical aspect, the guest lectures. After I graduated and started working, I think I can safely say that most days in my career as a journalist, there was something that I took away from Columbia that I found useful in my career. And I wanted our students to benefit from this similar experience… that would really be useful to them in their careers as journalists in the region. So that’s why it was important that it was in Arabic, it was important that we had regional and local experts as well as international experts… I’m trying to prepare journalists that are extremely professional, and that can work anywhere in the world at high standards.
Q. You worked at CNN for a number of years in Baghdad, Iraq. What kind of stories were you covering there?
I was there during the time of Saddam, and then a little bit during the war, but not that much because we were expelled very soon after the war started. And then of course, right after the fall of Saddam which presented its own challenges as well in terms of reporting the area. It was a very rich and intense experience. I feel very lucky and privileged that I was able to do that. And I learnt a great deal. It was a time when many people were embedded [with the armed forces] during the war, and – without casting a judgment on anyone – for me, in terms of how I wanted to report the story, I was happy that I wasn’t embedded. That’s because I’d always felt that our job as reporters is to shed a light on the people that you’re reporting on. And I had a lot more leeway to do that not being embedded.
Q. What are the challenges specific to reporting on the Arab world?
People are becoming much more media-savvy in the region. But maybe culturally there is a little bit more reserve with regard to the media. If you’re in New York and you’re on the street with your camera, you can just put your microphone in front of almost anybody and they’ll be happy to say a few words. But it’s not as simple in our part of the world: People are a bit more shy, a bit more reserved. Sometimes when it comes to women– in certain more conservative areas – it might be more tricky to get that access. So you need to know how to go about it. So there are lot of things that are quite different, which is why I think it is important that we [at JMI] did something homegrown. A lot of people suggested to me when we set up JMI, ‘why don’t you import Columbia University’. I was very happy that I went to Columbia University, but I think what we needed in our region was something that was much more relevant to our needs, how we report about things.
Q. Can you elaborate on that?
We talk a lot about self-censorship of journalists in our region. Some of it comes maybe from government pressures to a degree, but some of it comes from our society’s pressure. And I think in our part of the world, a journalist also has to take into account a lot of things. I remember one reporter saying that it was very difficult for him because he was on a business beat somewhere, but his uncle was the head of the airline, and he had issues with him every time he reported about the airline. So family ties are quite close, and that can create sometimes some issues. We’re also now going through a lot of changes in the region when it comes to the role of the media within our society, and again this is why it is important for us to be really well implanted in the region and follow how things are going, how the role of the media is changing. You need to know the difference between government media and the others, which is obviously very different in the West, where there is more of a public media, not government mouthpieces.
Q. What implications does the Arab Spring have on the way the media works and how is JMI responding to this?
I think maybe there were hesitations among some students – there were a few demonstrations and they were a little bit concerned – [asking] ‘should we go?’. And we said, ‘of course you definitely should go; you are reporters, you have press cards, and that’s what you’re there for’. I don’t know that we’ve seen any changes because at the outset we were very determined to make JMI a place where there is freedom of expression, a place where people can go and do as professional reporting as they can in real time as they learn.
Q. Is the Western media getting its reporting of the Arab world right?
I think it’s got much better. On the whole there have been a lot of genuine efforts to get it right. What is in effect a sad consequence of today’s media landscape in the West, which is the closing down of international bureaus, might actually have one silver lining to it, which means that they have to call on local journalists. And I think that can only increase the understanding and really getting it right. So, in a way, that could be an opportunity.