Amman, Jordan – No revolution erupted in Jordan but many Jordanians have reaped benefits from the “Arab Awakening”, mainly in the form of greater freedoms. It used to be taboo to even question the monarchy in a private conversation inside a friend’s home. Now, some protesters carry banners with slogans that blatantly criticise King Abdullah II.
This relaxation is the government’s way of containing dissent, and it has been a smart move. It’s part of the reason why protests in Jordan have largely remained peaceful.
Envious of the gains their friends made in Tunisia and Egypt, Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood was among the first groups to jump on the bandwagon and take advantage of improved freedom of expression. Towards the end of 2011, the group launched Al Yarmouk, its first satellite television channel.
Had it not been for the Arab Awakening, Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood would have never dreamt of having its own TV channel.
“Arab regimes, and especially the Jordanian government, appeared to be more tolerant and lenient after the Arab Spring, by allowing uncensored journalism to operate freely.“
– Faraj Shalhoub, Al Sabeel newspaper
According to Al Yarmouk’s General Manager Khader Al Mashayekh, the channel’s audience is not only “Islamic”. Lots of Jordanians watch the channel, he says, because it addresses all sectors of society through its variety of political, cultural and social programmes.
The Muslim Brotherhood, was among the first groups to make its voice heard in the Arab Spring. Al Mashayekh says this has helped the Brothers enter a “new sphere of influence”. But he admits if the channel wants to be successful, it has to listen to all views and address all issues to appeal to more people, because Muslim Brotherhood followers still remain a minority.
The channel is conservative. However, its management says it’s not a religious channel. It hosts unveiled female activists and politicians. But it will only hire female reporters and presenters who wear the veil.
Its capabilities are modest. The Amman-based channel has only 20 staff employees and operates out of four tiny rooms, including only one studio. It has about 30 different programmes that are mostly interactive and heavily reliant on viewer participation. This is why the channel receives hundreds of calls and up to 3,000 text messages from its viewers every day.
The channel is actually licensed as a Bahraini channel because it would have taken ages to license it as a Jordanian one. Management wanted to launch within months of the start of protests in Jordan so it didn’t have time to waste. Now, it’s submitted all its paperwork at the Audiovisual Commission and is awaiting a Jordanian channel license, if and when it’s issued.
Struggle for the airwaves
|Protesters shout anti-government slogans in February 2011 [EPA]|
Attempts have been made to jam the channel’s signal a few times. The most recent was during last November’s riots against fuel price hikes, which for the first time led to calls for the monarchy’s overthrow. The channel says it covered the riots and objectively reported what was happening on the ground.
Many local channels came under government pressure and were subject to heavy censorship. Al Yarmouk’s signal was jammed for about two days in mid-November.
Though the channel is seen as a breakthrough and an opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood to appeal to a wider segment of society, the group has always had its own media tools.
Al Sabeel daily newspaper is one of them. Twenty-years ago it started as weekly newspaper. At the end of 2008, the government allowed Al Sabeel to issue as a daily publication. The government and the Muslim Brotherhood were never friends, but most of the time the authorities saw that accommodating the group prevents it from growing more extreme.
Editor-in-chief of Al Sabeel newspaper, Faraj Shalhoub, who’s also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Shura Council says, “Arab regimes, and especially the Jordanian government, appeared to be more tolerant and lenient after the Arab Spring, by allowing uncensored journalism to operate freely.”
If you visit Al Sabeel, you can tell it’s a conservative workplace. Though reporting jobs force the journalist to negotiate the streets, male and female reporters are segregated at Al Sabeel’s offices. The male journalists sit in the main newsroom, and the much-fewer female journalists work in a separate room.
Apart from Al Sabeel and Al Yarmouk, four years ago another media outlet affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood emerged. Al Bosala online news agency is still unlicensed but has been competing fiercely with well-established local online agencies.
It has 20 journalists spread across the country and its editor-in-chief, Nasser Lafi, says the site is unmatched in covering Muslim Brotherhood affairs and internal divisions. It likely won’t publish anything negative about the group, but has a unique insider’s view.
However, the website regularly comes under acts of sabotage. Lafi says there are almost daily incidents of hacking and attempts to bring down the site. That’s why the reporters live “in a very cautious environment”. He says they resort to technicians to fix site issues in order to upload reporters’ content.
“There seem to be higher powers that try to impede us.“
– Nasser Lafi, Al Bosala online news agency
“There seem to be higher powers that try to impede us,” says Lafi.
Many Jordanians do not agree with the way Al Yarmouk, Al Sabeel and Al Bosala cover the news. Columnist and political analyst Sultan Al Hattab says the Muslim Brotherhood has the right to have its own media outlets, however, he thinks they are quick to report news that is critical of the government “without even checking facts”. He urged the group to try to be more objective.
Hattab says the Muslim Brotherhood always talks about being censored and closely watched by the government, but leftist groups suffer heavier restrictions on their freedom and don’t victimise themselves like the Brotherhood does.
Whether the government likes it or not, the Muslim Brotherhood is relatively popular in the country. The Brotherhood-led protest movement in Jordan has lost steam largely because of the bloody conflict in neighbouring Syria, and continuing chaos in Egypt.
Although Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood has been known for being exclusive to those who don’t share its views, the group is hoping to build a broader following through its collection of media tools, especially Al Yarmouk Channel, which says it addresses all Jordanians.
The latest addition to its media wing may reflect a subtle shift in the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy.