Daoud Kuttab: Challenges of Independent Media in the MENA Region

The following transcript is from Daoud Kuttab’s lecture on internet radio in Jordan, hosted by the Center for Media at Risk. He spoke on August 29 at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.


About a month ago I was invited to Doha, Qatar, to an international conference in support of independent media. As you might know, Al Jazeera and others are being harassed by internal Gulf conflicts, and the Saudis and the Emirates want to close Al Jazeera down. And I’m a member of the International Press Institute, and so as part of that membership I went to Doha, gave a talk, and near the second day, I think, of the talk there was a presentation, and it really was one of the best presentations of all of us, done by Barbie, and she quoted my Washington Post article, which was nice.

I, at the end, had her email and it said that she’s running the Center for Media at Risk, and I said, “Oh my God, finally somebody’s doing something about media at risk,” because everybody’s doing something about journalists at risk, but very few people are doing something about media at risk. And my personal experience in the problems that I was facing at the time, and I still am—I said, “I have to write to her,” so I sent her an email giving her some feedback of what was happening and saying that I’m coming to Philadelphia because my daughter’s going to school here, and so she invited me for dinner, and now I’m here talking to you.

I will kind of jump-start the discussion by beginning at the year 2000. It might help you understanding beforehand, but it would be another discussion. My idea is to give you a case study; rather than talking about all the MENA region, and have a discussion. Obviously if you have specific questions I’m happy to answer them.

So for personal reasons, I had to remarry, my first wife had died, and I was going back and forth to Jordan for the weekends, and there was a conference in the Jordanian capital. One of the speakers there from the government was saying, “Under the new young King of Jordan, the internet is going to be free, everybody is going to be able to use the internet. There will be no control, no censorship, internet cafes will not be watched anymore.”

And as was said in my introduction, I had started AMIN, Arab Media Internet Network, so I raised my hand, I said, “You know, Mr. Minister, in Jordan there are no independent radio stations. And what if I wanted to start a radio station online?” “No problem. You’re allowed to do it. We want to become the hub,” and so on. So I talked to a few friends, I talked to UNESCO, I raised a little bit of money, and set up an internet radio station.

And everybody was laughing at me. And I said, “You know, how many people in the year 2000 are listening to internet radio?” Probably 10, 15 people. But I wanted to establish the process of having independent media platforms. Because until then, basically the media was mostly government-controlled— radio, TV stations—government-controlled, or business-controlled, but “in bed, newspapers”. And that was it. There was no independent media. To get into Jordan radio and television, you needed a pass, you needed a security check. It was because in the ’50s and ’60s many countries had revolutions, and coup d’etats, and in the coup d’etat, you take over the palace and then you take over the radio station, and then that’s it.

So they’re really worried about radio, and they wouldn’t allow independent radio. But things were changing, and I kind of came in at the right time. And so, with a $35,000 grant from UNESCO we set up AMIN Net, we trained people. And one of the things I said, I said, “Look, I don’t want a single journalist working in Jordan. I want to get them from university, before they get all the bad habits of self-censorship, and all the things that come with the existing media.” I train, because people working for the government had to toe the line, and so they become ingrained with how you write.

So I wanted really fresh attitudes. And the fact that we had the internet gave me an idea, and I’ll give you a little story. There was a minister in Jordan, a Cabinet Minister of Agriculture, and one day he was going home at 4:00; he opened up his own government-run radio station, turned on the news. And the first item of the news said, “The Minister of Agriculture today resigned.” And he said “I didn’t resign. I didn’t resign.”

And I say this story to my journalists, the people who are trained, ’cause I said, “Look, because the government is so controlling the media, all they have to do is put a story up on the government-controlled radio, and it becomes a fact. The paperwork could be done later, but the actual fact is done there.” I said to them, “Look, if that story happens under your watch, I want it in actually. I want to hear the voice of the minister saying, ‘Yes, I resigned because I want to spend more time with my family,’ or anything. I just want to have something to prove to me that this minister actually resigned.”

And so, while we were on the internet, although 15 people were listening to us, we actually created a way of reporting that actually built on what you probably take for granted here:  actualities. You want to report from downtown Amman? I want to hear the street sounds, I want to hear people, I want to have the actual recordings. You come in and you record them.

And something happened, while we were training people, while we were working on this new step, which was what we call the Palestinian Second Intifada. You know, Ariel Sharon tried to enter the mosque. So there were all kinds of demonstrations, and obviously, we were covering everything. We covered these demonstrations.

And then I remembered a Palestinian friend of mine in Bethlehem, who has a radio station, aptly called Radio Bethlehem 2000, because the millennium was a big story then. So I called him up, I said, Fadid, there are demonstrations in support of Palestinians. Are you interested in covering?”

“Yes, sure.”

I said, “You have internet?”

“Yes.” You know, he had internet.

“Can you plug in ammannet.net.”

“Yes.” He plugged it in.

“And can you hear our live broadcasting?”

“Yes.”

“Can you rebroadcast it?”

And he said, “Sure.”

So all a sudden, we are in downtown Amman, broadcasting online, picked up in the West Bank, in Bethlehem, rebroadcast. And there are no real physical borders between the West Bank and Amman. All of a sudden we found transistors, and we could actually hear ourselves, on an actual radio station. This was, to us, a great story. Because we were doing something totally illegal, but in a legal way. We were registered, we were doing things online. What they were doing in Palestine and West Bank, it’s not our business.

So that model actually succeeded, with others obviously, in getting the Jordanian government to decommission and unregulate the audio/visual system. And they started giving licenses. And by the year 2005, we applied for and got a license for an actual FM radio station.

Now, the fees have, and continue to be, very high, $50,000 a year just for a radio station fee. But thank god for Open Society, and other foundations, we were able to raise the money, and we got ourselves an FM radio station.

So for years, we were one of the few really independent media outlets. We would attend the City Council meetings, and the PR people were very mad at us, because our reporter would go and report on City Council, like you would in any city. And he was upset, because he had a list of his favorite journalists that he would . . . I was told later, he would pay at the end of the month on the side. And he would send them the news, but he kind of left . . . I mean, they would make, let’s say 10 decisions in City Council, and so every few days he would give out one story. And all of a sudden, we kind of blew their cover, because we were reporting the main stories immediately.

So that started a whole new way of reporting. Our journalists would go to press conferences, and they wouldn’t just put forth the microphone and say, “What are your priorities?” They would actually ask real questions.

And I would tell people, “If you don’t have a question, don’t go to the press conference. We can hear it on television.” If you have a real question, ask it, because the question sometimes becomes the headline. That becomes what is trending, and what becomes covered by the media.

So we created, with all humility, a kind of school of thought, of how to work. And to be honest, a lot of new journalists were born. Some of them stayed with us, some of them went out, some created new, mostly online, outlets. And that has continued until this day.

The problem is of course, as you all know, the business of media is not as easy as the business of a journalist. A journalist with a laptop, anywhere in the world, you can write, you can report. But a media outlet needs to pay the electricity, needs to pay the licenses fees, and staffing, and so on. And it became much more difficult to keep our radio station alive.

Obviously, Open Society and others were very generous for many years. But donors have their own kind of donor fatigue. The Syrian/Iraqi crisis came up, and basically, a lot of the NGO funding shifted. And we were left with the small money that we would raise, or projects that we were trying to get advertising for. And, you know, basically that’s what happened.

Now, in the meanwhile, just to kind of give you the lay of the land, in Jordan, a lot of radio stations were established. But the playing field is not even. We—Our number one radio station is owned by the army. By the army. The number two radio station is owned by the police. I mean, they’re successful radio stations, they bring a lot of advertisement, they have the best DJs, and they solve a lot of small problems.

Because that’s how you keep people happy, by solving a small problem here and there. But you talk to a patient, and you solve this problem, but you don’t solve the medical problem. You have a pothole, or a traffic light not working in some neighborhood, you fix that, but you don’t fix the transportation system.

So we found that, basically, most of the advertising money was going to these big stations. If you were a business person who runs a telecom or a bank, and you get somebody calling you from the radio station owned by the army or somebody calling from Radio El Balad, which one would you advertise in? Which would make you happy the next day, and who will make you upset the next day?

So we . . . Basically, the market, the advertising market, which is a normal part of any kind of successful media, is really not working. Add to that the fact that the system of ratings. Here you have Nielsen ratings, and so on. We have a company called Ipsos. And Ipsos is a French-I think-a  French-based company, with a local interpreter working with them. And they produce three times, or four times, a year, Audience, or what they call Audience Report.

But nobody sees that, except the companies that buy it. You have to actually pay money, a lot of money, to buy these reports. And it stays kind of a closed secret to these companies, the advertising agencies. And so we really have no idea who’s . . . I mean, they say they’re number one, they probably are number one. But there are no other details about the audience research.

What’s more important, which I always stress, and one of the problems we have, is that nobody actually reviews audience trust. They all review reach, but they don’t poll for impact. So people might listen to a particular station, but do they trust it? Do they trust?

We had people coming in on Radio El Balad, including cabinet ministers, and they were surprised the next day that a lot of people were listening to them, and that people would talk to them. And one minister once said, “I get on Jordan Television, and I don’t get the kind of comments I get after appearing on your radio station.” Now does that mean people listen because they trust us, or because they know who we are—we’ll ask the really . . . the right questions? But that is part of the problem.

We also pioneered an investigative reporting wing to our work. And we succeeded. Jordan had a very—Jordan has an access to information law that is very, that appears to be very good, but in reality has no teeth, has no real effectiveness. Because you apply to government agencies for information, and they don’t cooperate. You complain, you appeal to them, and nothing happens. And so, it’s a problem.

But thank god, we’ve succeeded in a number of big investigations. Initially we were doing a lot of investigations on issues of housing, hospitals, education. We didn’t really get into the politics, or into corruption, so on.

But a year ago, I think, the Panama Papers project came up. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Panama Papers. But we were one of, I think, 300 journalists around the world who were involved. And we were given access to all information about Jordanians who had these secret accounts. And we had six months, which was great. Six months to actually do our own original reporting on the Panama Papers, the Jordan side. And we researched, we found people, we found stories, and obviously the day before it was . . .  I don’t know how much you know about the Panama Papers, there was one day that everybody was supposed to publish on the exact same day. And you know, the ICIJ, I think what it’s called, was actually going to put all the details on their own website.

So the day before, obviously, as any proper journalist, we contacted, with registered FedEx, that kind of FedEx Express, with a letter saying, “This is our story, we want your reaction.” Of course, they went crazy. Then people in the government intelligence service, the night that . . . We were supposed to publish, 10:00, I think, on Monday morning, our time. And I got a call about 8:00 p.m., the night before, from somebody saying, “People at the top, they don’t want you to publish things.”

And I said, “Look, just for your information, this information’s going to be published around the world. If we don’t publish it, if you stop us, it will be known that you stopped us. You will have much more negative repercussions than if you just let it go.” And he said, “Well, let me see what I can do. I’ll check it.” And I rushed back to the office. I said, “Guys, put it on immediately. Put it online,” ’cause we had everything thing set up. And I went home, turned off my cell phone, went to bed.

So the next morning, the story hit everywhere. And I don’t know if you remember, the Greenland, or somebody, prime minister resigned. There was talk that Tony Blair’s father was involved. There was a big story around the world. And nobody paid attention to our story in Jordan. A few businessmen were not happy with us, but basically we got away with that. Obviously, we’re not going to get a lot of business from some of the business people that were reported, but that’s part of being an independent journalist.

Let me just give you a few more stories, before we can then have a discussion. Cyberspace was a godsend, obviously. I mean, as I told you, we were able to broadcast online, and the website provided us a lot of space, and opportunity, that wasn’t available in the normal situation.

But like all countries, developing countries, they were not happy with the state of online media. And so they created a media law, or they amended the press and publications law, to include online media. And they defined any website that deals with local news, local commentary, as a newspaper, online newspaper. And so they basically put us under the umbrella of having a newspaper. And if you have a newspaper license, there’s a whole set of conditions, you have to adhere to certain conditions in what is in the content, and you have to hire an editor in chief who’s a member of the press association, even though the press association doesn’t allow online journalists to be members. So basically, it’s mostly pro-government staff.

And so obviously, we protested. We sent all kinds of segments; international organizations all protested. We went out in the streets, we went to court, because we thought it was unconstitutional. All that failed. But during our discussion, the government kept on saying, “Why are you making such a big fuss? This is to help you. This is only to root out some of the websites that are blackmailing people. And you should support what we’re doing. And anyway, this will protect your journalists, because once you’re a journalist in a licensed newspaper, the government cannot detain you. If somebody has a problem with you, they have to go to a judge, and the judge would have to issue an order. But if you’re a journalist, working for a licensed paper, you are safe.”

So I mean, we had no choice, we had lost in the courts, and nobody was paying attention. And so we applied for a license, like everybody else. And then a year later, which was like 2015, Jordan passed a cyber crime law.

Now the cyber crime law, clause 11, says that anybody who writes online, that is demeaning or slanderous, can be detained without a judge’s—you know, have it for 12 days, and then a judge can look at it. We said, “Look, I thought you promised us that if we worked at a newspaper that is licensed, online, that we would be protected.”

“No, this is a cyber crime, it’s supposed to stop criminals, and also there’s a terrorism issue,” and so on.

And so, all a sudden what happened, and this actually has happened, you can write an article in a print newspaper, and that newspaper is distributed, nothing happens. The moment that newspaper posts that particular article online, they can actually arrest you, and detain you for 12 days until a judge looks into it. So for the very same content that you’re allowed in a print newspaper, you’re not allowed online.

Now of course, things are getting worse now, because social media is eating up everything, both print, and online, and everything else. And there are now new laws that are restraining people, and restricting them for what they write in social media.

So in closing, what I have seen in the last 30 years is a number of developments. One is that despite all these restrictions that I’ve talked about, the castle of major newspapers, major government-run TV stations, has been—has shattered. There’s a lot more platforms for media, and for content, to be distributed.

But most of the content is not . . . I mean, these major outlets, whether they’re government-owned, or they’re privately owned by people, businessmen who are in bed with government, the impact is still basically with governments. And in the case of the Gulf countries, ruling families, like the Saudis, and others, who basically bankroll major outlets, and TV stations, and newspapers, and so on.

So what is needed now, I think, are two different things. We need to continue to find the right formula, to keep independent media alive. And so the idea of “media at risk” is something that is very close to my heart, because I’ve finally found somebody that actually understands that it’s not enough to fight for journalists at risk, but you also have to find ways to support and to make sure media is not at risk.

But also, we need to find ways to create original content. A lot more platforms exist today, but I would say for sure we don’t have a lot more original content. A lot of the same content is being rehashed more, over, and over, and over, and over. Changing the headlines, changing the lead story, changing the video, re-editing the same video. But there isn’t, I don’t think, as much. There is obviously, there is more content available now, and there is more information available. But the fact is that I think we still need to work a lot more on ways to create original content.

Now, setting up new content has a problem, which is that you don’t want governments, even good governments, foundations, even good foundations, to be involved in the content creation business. That should always be the job of journalists. Independent journalists should decide.

I mean, in my own organization, I’m the director general. If I write a column, I send it to my editor in chief, and I say, “If you find it accessible, or acceptable, publish it. If you don’t publish, I will not be upset.”

I don’t want to be—I don’t want owners of media to actually dictate to journalists what they should and shouldn’t write. And I think one of the problems is that to find the right business model, to keep media alive, and to keep journalists writing on things that are not just funny cats on websites, or stories about sex, money, and whatever that brings a lot of hits, is a real problem.

And I think we need to find a formula that allows for media, an independent media, to grow. We need to find ways to link media together, so there is a kind of coalition creation within media. So that as in the Panama Papers case, where if they had stopped us in Jordan, we would know that it’s going to be published in Washington, and other places. Therefore, it actually weakens the abilities of local governments to control what you have in media, because you have backup outlets that would chip in, and come in, and make sure that your content that you worked on for six months doesn’t go to waste and is actually published.

So we need to think creatively. I don’t have all the answers, and I’m sure you guys are all searching for answers, and the whole world is searching for answers. The business model of newspapers has fallen apart, and what you used to get a dollar for, in advertising in newspapers, now you get 10 cents for, and I’m told on social media, you get one penny for. And therefore, the actual financial basis of journalism, and media, and staying alive, is really something that we need to find solutions for that. Solutions that, again, allow for independent media, independent content, to continue to be published, broadcast, and published online, and other places. And at the same time to safeguard that small window of independence that we all believe media should cover.

I can talk a lot more on many issues, but let’s have a kind of discussion, if you don’t mind.

Center for Media at Risk

This article was published by the editors and producers at the Center for Media at Risk.