A New Liberty Sweeps Through Jordan Radio

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

AMMAN -- As the sun rises over the Jordanian capital, the problems of the day start to stream in to Radio Fann. In the studio, producers scramble to keep up with calls and e-mails from listeners complaining about issues like water shortages and bureaucratic failures.

In a country where the news media are traditionally hemmed in by authoritarian legislation and self-censorship, such call-in shows are now able to address political topics and human rights issues that were unmentionable in public before the Arab Spring.

Hani al Badri, 45, is host of Wasat al-Balad, a two-and-a-half-hour live broadcast for people who find nowhere else to turn. The producers not only field their calls; they ring government officials on-air to try to resolve the issues raised.

"The show has two main roles," said Mr. Badri, who also writes a newspaper column in Al Ghad, an independent daily. The radio show is "a platform for freedom of speech, but it's also a place where Jordanians expect their problems to be solved."

The morning talk shows are popular in a country where local municipalities are weighed down by bloated bureaucracies and inadequate budgets, despite a plan in 2005 to increase their efficiency.

Even this week, public workers across the kingdom have been on strike demanding better pay and benefits. And although more people than expected voted in parliamentary elections last month, Jordanians weary of fuel price increases are bracing for more economic hardship this year.

With a population of just over six million, Jordan is a relatively poor country with almost 14 percent of its people living below the poverty line, according to the Department of Statistics.

"There is a lack of accountability by public officials," Mr. Badri said, "so we bring them on the show and present them with a clear problem at a specific location. We try to solve the caller's problem on the spot, if we can."

Still, some Jordanians have accused the radio hosts of courting acclaim by publicly highlighting the government's failures to provide basic services, Mr. Badri said. And sometimes, government officials would rather avoid dealing with the media, although over time they have come to appreciate the opportunity to present the government's views to a wider audience, he added.

On Jan. 14, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour met with directors of Jordan's radio stations and presenters. Mr. Badri, who attended the meeting, said he took the opportunity to share a few of the concerns of his listeners: Whether to cancel the test that determines whether a student can attend university; what the repercussions will be of the prime minister's decision to keep daylight saving time in force throughout the winter.

Daoud Kuttab, the founder and general manager of Radio Balad and AmmanNet, the first online community radio station, said radio had significant influence in Jordan. "Radio is extremely accessible and it is a democratic instrument," he said. "You can listen to the radio at home, in the car or on your phone and anybody can call in. It is available 24 hours a day and it is free of charge."

In 2002, the Jordanian government approved a law that ended its monopoly on broadcasting, resulting in the licensing of dozens of privately owned radio stations.

Still, "the media scene in Jordan, as it is in many Arab countries, is dominated by government-owned media," Mr. Kuttab said. "For many years the government had a monopoly in media and in many ways they still do."

Radio Fann, for example, is still owned by the Jordanian armed forces. Another, Amen FM, is owned by the police. Before the Arab Spring, most radio stations played primarily music.

AmmanNet, an independent station, changed the format of its morning show -- "Tallet Subeh," which means "Morning Glimpse" -- from trying to solve social problems to building political and social awareness by profiling political candidates or analyzing new laws.

"Our show is now less service-oriented because we found the long-term impact is limited," Mr. Kuttab said. "There needs to be institutional changes and obviously the popularity of these morning talk shows continues to reveal flaws in the system."

One reason Mr. Badri's radio show succeeds is his willingness to discuss issues that have a direct impact on listeners' daily lives.

On a recent program, for example, he discussed the price of cooking gas cylinders which has increased 50 percent since the government cut public subsidies three months ago.

Callers have also complained about traffic violations and the cost of real estate. Others call to weigh in on current events.

Humor and Arabic pop songs are used to lighten long discussions as Jordanians make their way to work or school. In between conversations, a D.J. chooses lyrics from Arabic pop songs that echo complaints from listeners. When a caller said he felt neglected by the government, the background music was a love song about abandonment.

"When the show first began, we told government officials that it's better they respond to caller requests and go on the record," said Mr. Badri, who hosted the show for nearly a year. "Some officials now realize the power of the media because ordinary citizens have found an outlet to hold them accountable."

Mr. Badri said he worried less about censorship these days, and more about the lack of access to information the public has a right to know.

"For now we will continue to put pressure on officials," he said, "and talk about taboo issues as well."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here