A new publicly funded television station in Jordan is promising to bring an independent voice to news coverage in the kingdom. But some Jordanians are sceptical, criticizing the channel as costly and simply another mouthpiece for the ruling elite.
Al-Mamlaka (‘the kingdom’) began broadcasting on 16 July 2018, promising in a statement to deliver an ‘advanced and qualitative leap with more freedom and professionalism’ than the existing broadcasters.
The channel has been in the works for years. Plans were first announced in a royal decree issued in July 2015, which also appointed the station’s chairman and board of directors. The government reportedly allocated an initial 10 million dinars to cover the channel’s start-up costs over the next two years.
In spite of the public financing, officials said the channel would be independent of the state-owned Jordan Radio and Television Corporation.
Fahed Khitan, a columnist for the daily newspaper al-Ghad and former editor-in-chief of al-Arab al-Yawm, was named chairman of the channel under the decree, with Ayman Safadi, Marwan Jumaa, Nart Buran and Bassem Tweisi as board members. Buran left his position at Sky News Arabia in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to join the new channel, as did journalist Arrar al-Shara.
As of 29 July 2018, the channel had 99 employees listed on LinkedIn and more than 81,000 likes on its Facebook page.
The channel’s CEO, Dana Suyyagh, told The Arab Weekly, “The new channel will carry a heavy focus on local news, in addition to regional and international coverage, and will create a closer bond with Jordanian citizens by providing a forum for all voices to be heard. The channel will be geared to the local audience first and foremost but also the Arab and global audiences who want to know more about what is happening in Jordan.”
While some were hopeful that the channel would provide an alternative to the state-owned Jordanian news media and to pan-Arab channels such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, many remained unimpressed after seeing al-Mamlaka’s first weeks of broadcasting.
Jordan Press Association board member Khaled Qudah told The Jordan Times that he hoped the channel would add more “friendly competitiveness” to the local media environment and represent “a leap forward” for press freedom.
“We look forward to seeing more diversity on-screen; a media platform that is closer to the audience than to politicians, to prove that freedom of expression and professionalism do not clash,” he said.
Rana Sabbagh, an independent journalist, columnist and former editor-in-chief at The Jordan Times, told Fanack Chronicle that al-Mamlaka has been touted by its founders and the government as the first public TV station with a heavy emphasis on news, along the same lines as the BBC. But she said it remains to be seen how much editorial independence the channel will actually enjoy.
“The litmus test will be their editorial line on coverage of news related to major developments of significance to national security, such as – God forbid – a terror attack or national unrest, a high-level corruption case, controversy over foreign policy that is determined largely by King Abdullah, criticism of symbols of the state etc.,” she said. “Will we, as Jordanians, hear a full report from al-Mamlaka TV … when it happens, with live coverage, or will we have to turn to independent public broadcasters operating outside Jordan such as the BBC, to hear about what is happening in our country?”
The channel’s coverage to date has included a mix of Jordanian and international news, such as developments in the conflict between Israel and Syria and the release of Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi as well as local stories on traffic accidents, an attempt by Jordanian divers to break a world record and the inauguration of a new military hospital.
However, the channel has so far steered clear of controversy and has shown little interest in questioning the royal family or the country’s political institutions.
Some Jordanians took to social media to criticize al-Mamlaka for failing to cover a recent controversy stemming from comments by MP Ghazi al-Hawamala. He condemned the role of the queen in Jordan’s government, saying the kingdom was run by two masters and that “even in the beehive … there is only one queen”.
Journalist Ibrahim Sahouri wrote on Twitter that many Jordanians considered this ‘the first professional failure of the new channel’.
Others complained about the public money being invested in the channel. MP Abdul Karim Doghmi, who announced he is withholding confidence in the government, cited among other issues, al-Mamlaka’s 30 million dinar budget, given Jordan’s current economic woes. Citizens also raised questions about the cost on social media.
‘34 million dinars is the cost of the hospital that is being built in Maan. 30 million dinars is the cost of the al-Mamlaka channel for 2016 and 2017. Which was first, another hospital in the south, the north, the Badia, or a second official television channel?’ wrote blogger Mujahed Taharwh on Twitter.
However, al-Mamlaka may have an advantage in regional news coverage. Jordan has stayed on the sidelines of the region’s power struggles, potentially giving the channel greater access than some of its rivals.
Al-Jazeera, for instance, came under attack after a diplomatic crisis erupted between Qatar and a coalition of Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia. Among the demands issued by the coalition to lift the blockade imposed on Qatar in June 2017 was the shuttering of al-Jazeera.
At the least, al-Mamlaka may be better able to inform Jordanians about local and international issues than existing broadcasters. If it is to make a meaningful contribution to the region’s media mix, however, it will need true independence and a desire to provide critical coverage of Jordan’s leaders and institutions.
That may be a tall order in the country’s media environment, in which only moderate criticism of King Abdullah is tolerated and cybercrime legislation has been used to crack down on those who overstep the boundaries.