AMMAN: An odd thing happened the other day in the Arab world.
Amid all the recent backsliding on free speech and the general disinterest in democracy among Middle Eastern governments, one head of state drew a thin and highly significant line in the sand.
Typically, the other Arab states chose to ignore it, local journalists didn’t believe it and the international press had its mind on other things. But in a region where good news has become a long-forgotten curiosity, it would be unwise to let it pass unnoticed.
The man at the center of this event was King Abdullah of Jordan, who last month gathered together the chief editors of Jordan’s main newspapers and told them that from now on there would be big changes in the country’s media environment. Specifically, no more jailing of reporters for writing the wrong thing and a new mechanism would be created to protect the rights of journalists, including their access to information.
“Detention of journalists is prohibited,” he said. “I do not see a reason for detaining a journalist because he/she wrote something or for expressing a view.”
Perhaps, after nearly five years broadcasting debates from the confines of the Middle East, I’m easily pleased. But over that period, no other Arab leader has come close to making a similar, public commitment and all the recent changes affecting the Arab media have led inexorably backward.
I am deluged by stories from editors in the region, who regularly have the guts censored out of their political articles, and who have seen a steep rise in the number of warning calls from their political masters, telling them what they can or cannot print.
In addition, all but two Arab states signed up last February to an Arab League initiative that pledged to restrict still further the rights of the myriad satellite stations in a vain effort to shore up that rarest of regional commodities – Arab unity. So against this background, King Abdullah’s declaration marks a sharp departure from the current trend.
And yet it’s hardly surprising that local journalists were unimpressed. The government still has plenty of legal instruments it can use against them. More than 20 laws continue to govern media conduct in Jordan, including the Penal Code, and there is no guarantee against “creative” prosecutions in the future under the pretext of other crimes or misdemeanors. No single statement from the royal palace can airbrush away years of harassment and interference.
Besides, the king’s statement comes in the same year that his country has been downgraded by the Paris-based organization “Reporters without Borders” in its 2008 Worldwide Press Freedom Index. Jordan now stands at 128th position out of 173 countries – six places lower than last year.
Even a government report by the grandly titled Higher Media Council last year admitted serious problems with the country’s journalism. The majority of reporters faced difficulties getting information, it said – or worse, were completely denied access to data.
So was the king serious about pushing through improvements?
One senior diplomat in Amman was heard to wonder whether his majesty’s wishful thinking had got the better of him. A government minister even hinted that some “authorities” might take no notice of his strictures. There were suggestions that the engine room often took time to react to orders from the bridge.
Whatever the case, it would be a mistake to do what the opponents of free speech would like the world to do: Forget about the whole thing.
Jordan’s king needs to be reminded that the world will not ignore his fine words. He should also be persuaded to repeat them and expand their scope in the months to come.
Plenty of leaders in the region have talked about reform – although considerably fewer these days than three years ago – but King Abdullah, now facing serious economic problems, is more receptive than most to external encouragement. Sweeping away repressive practices on the treatment of journalists would go a long way to improving his country’s image, especially amid new accusations by Human Rights Watch of torture in Jordanian jails.
One other event also passed unnoticed in Amman over the last few weeks: the first regional conference for Arab investigative journalists.
Like me, you may be amazed that, given the many and varied disincentives, such an organization can still exist in the Middle East. But it is a tribute to a small number of brave and single-minded reporters, who labor across the region under the constant threat of arrest or arbitrary detention.
All they have to protect them are their questions – and in many cases, that isn’t enough.
Last month, they got a small gift from the king of Jordan in the shape of a declaration of support. They need to unwrap it, display it and ask for more. If nobody takes it seriously – either at home or abroad – there is a strong chance this gift could be taken back.