The Jordanian government took a bad step on January 27th causing a major retreat to the progress made for independent radio. The Jordanian cabinet rejected a total of 13 applications for independent radio and television stations. The decision rolls back progress in the past few years which included the liberalization of the airwaves in Jordan.
I remember the day nine years ago when I attended a meeting with the young King Abdullah. I was participating in an international press freedom conference and we were given an audience with the King. I asked him when the government monopoly of the airwaves would end. His answer was straightforward. He promised what he called the 'privatization' of the media within two years. Sure enough, in 2002 an audio visual law was passed setting up a government-run regulator and within a couple of years tens of private radio licenses were issued.
The new audio visual law, however, was greatly flawed. Not only was the regulator a government employee but the audio visual law permitted the government to reject licensing of any radio or TV station without giving the reasons. The law also had an unusual financial stipulation. It levied an additional 50% fee to any license application that wanted to use the airwaves for news and political programming.
Despite these obstacles, private radio and satellite stations have mushroomed. The stations are largely based in the capital Amman and are largely entertainment based. A few University based stations have also been licensed.
The progress, however, was short lived. In 2007, an application for a station in the second largest Jordanian city of Zarqa was rejected. An attempt to challenge the law that allows the cabinet to reject a legal appeal to the Jordanian High Court was requiring the government to explain the reason for rejecting the application without an explanation, failed.
Among the 13 stations that were rejected last week was a unique station entitled Zahrat al Ghor which means the flower of the valley. The idea of the station was born during the ninth conference of AMARC, the global community radio association held in Amman in November 2006. The station I established, AmmanNet, was the local host of the conference and on the side of the conference some delegates went to the Jordan valley and organized a workshop for women activists on how to set up a community radio.
Over two years later, the trained women had raised enough money, rented a building for a studio and applied for a license to set up the first women's radio station. Without a legal cover, the women approached me and asked if they can use our non profit registration and we agreed. We also offered the women a weekly radio program on our Amman based community radio station.
The surprise of the government rejection is that it came at a time that the Jordanian government had declared 2009 a farming year in Jordan. It also comes at a time when the King has called for special effort to use media to help empower Jordanian women.
Ironically, the rejection of the license application came one week after we had signed a cooperation agreement with a Palestinian radio station in Jericho. Radio al Qamr (Moon radio) agreed to rebroadcast the one hour program produced by the Jordanian women. By using an FTP server, the Jericho station is able to download the program and rebroadcast it from Jericho. The people of both sides of the Jordan river are able to hear the Jericho station, thus creating a creative alternative to the Jordanian radio station rejection. The bypass of the government goes like this. Women from the Jordan valley produce programming from their community. They come to Amman and broadcast it on our station, now called Radio al Balad. The audio of the program is saved on our amman.net web site and is posted on the FTPserver. A Palestinian technician then downloads the program and broadcasts it the following day. Women and men in the Jordanian side of the Jordan Valley are able to hear the program originally produced in their own community. Result. We are able to do what appears to be an illegal act in a totally legal way. Naturally this round about way of broadcasting is no alternative to the women of the Jordan Valley having their own station, but hopefully it can send a message to restrictive officials that in today's world you simply can't keep people quiet using traditional legal means.
The writer is director general of Community Media Network, a not for profit media NGO that runs Radio al Balad in Amman, www.amman.net as well as PenMedia in Palestine.