x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Jordan opens itself to daily criticism

Critics question if The Assabeel weekly, with reputation as mouthpiece for Muslim Brotherhood, can be independent when it starts publishing daily.

Atef Joulani, the editor in chief of Assabeel, checks on work at the newspaper's office in Amman.
Atef Joulani, the editor in chief of Assabeel, checks on work at the newspaper's office in Amman.

AMMAN // The Assabeel weekly, which for years has acted as a mouthpiece for Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood, is hoping to hit the news-stands next year as a daily, in a clear sign of easing tensions between the government and the Islamists over their pro-Hamas agenda. Last month, the government agreed to change the status of the 15-year-old paper from a weekly to a daily, allowing it to join six other dailies, including one that is controlled by the government, most of which toe the official line. Atef Joulani, the editor-in-chief of Assabeel, said the daily will be financially independent from the Brotherhood, as will its administration, the same status quo it enjoyed as a weekly. However, Jamil Abu Baker, the paper's chairman who is deputy secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Mr Joulani and the paper's management, most of whom are members of the movement, will have to tread a delicate line to balance the needs of a market hungry for all political views with the Islamist's ideology. Assabeel has for years catered to an audience disenchanted with the government's policies - including its ties with Israel and the United States - as well as inflation, which many blame on the government. Its editorial stand is mostly pro-Hamas, anti-peace process and against normalisation of ties with Israel. In essence, observers believe that the weekly gave a different flavour to Jordan's pro-government media scene. "Assabeel daily is going to be professional and not just give voice to an ideological party," Mr Joulani said. "We have already hired a diversified team and we were keen to attract talent. The selection was not based on who prayed or who grew a beard, but rather on competency. "We are seeking professional journalism; investigative, objective reporting and to include the other's point of view." The paper has employed 68 new journalists, including 30 reporters, 18 foreign correspondents and 20 new columnists to focus on a range of political, economic and cultural news. Mr Joulani said 90 per cent of the journalists are not affiliated with the Brotherhood. Professional journalism, however, is an uphill battle in a country where press freedom remains restricted by government censorship and access to information. Although Jordan is the only Arab country to have made access to information a legal right, journalists are already complaining that officials are blocking information, using the law's elastic and vague clauses. For Mr Joulani, who may be too ambitious in his drive to market the newspaper as open and balanced, the mission will not be easy, more so if the government's ties with the Brotherhood and its political arm, the Islamic Action Front Party (IAF), sour again. To start with, the paper's licence did not come on a silver platter. Several requests for a daily licence were ignored this year, newspaper insiders said. It was granted only after a breakthrough in ties between the Islamists and the government after Jordan's intelligence chief, Mohammad Dahabi, at the instructions of King Abdullah, started a dialogue this summer with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood after trying to curb their influence. The government also reinstated 20 mosque preachers two months ago, most of them IAF and Brotherhood members, and is planning to close the file on the Islamic Centre, the Brotherhood's financial and investment arm. The government dissolved its board two years ago amid allegations of corruption and appointed a temporary committee to run its affairs. "We welcome the paper's move to turn into a daily, but I doubt the government is happy with the transformation because it initially obstructed its attempts to go to a daily, but the paper will give legitimacy to the media scene," said Yahya Shukkeir, a media law expert. "Yet the government will make use of Assabeel because it gives it an additional alibi that it listens to the Islamists and respects democracy," he said. "So it is a mutual relationship that benefits both parties." Osama el Sherif, a journalist and a former editor-in-chief of the Addustour daily, said, "The paper is going to be an important development because most of our dailies are very pro-government with one exception, Arab Elyawm. It will be a welcome change if it provides a different voice in our daily media scene. "Whether it will succeed commercially as a daily ? is going to be the biggest challenge." The paper, however, like other dailies, will work in an environment where press freedom has slipped to 128th from 122nd in 2007 and 109th in 2005, according to the media rights watchdog, Reporters Without Borders. Professional reporting, for the most part, remains rare and most papers pay low salaries, forcing journalists to focus on quantity rather than quality or seek jobs abroad. Yet Mr Joulani believes the paper has an advantage over other papers. "We have experience in pushing the envelope further because we do not succumb to pressure," he said. "The paper is not going to present itself as an opposition or a loyalist one. Our opinions will be reflected in opinion and editorial pages. "But when it comes to Israeli occupation or the Iraqi occupation, we are not going to be impartial in our coverage," he said. Whether the paper is going to be objective is another matter. Already the weekly is drawing criticism. "I hope that the paper, before it becomes a daily, will ensure accuracy and objectivity in the news coverage because its reporting is clouded by religious and ideological factors which prevent it from seeing the truth," said Sultan Hattab, a columnist for Al Rai, the pro-government paper. "If it is like that as a weekly, how is it going to be as a daily?" Mr Hattab criticised Assabeel for sullying the reputation of writers who disagree with its views. "Any journalist who expresses a view against the Islamists' positions on Jordan or Hamas ? the paper attacks him and labels him as an apostate and a traitor. It is character assassination." Some analysts feel that the government has acted in haste with its approval. It will be very difficult for the government to reverse its decision if the paper takes its editorial line to the extreme. So far Assabeel is drawing some guarded praise. "This is a test for the government, society and the Islamists. Let us see where it will lead to the paper," said Nidal Mansour, the director of the Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists. smaayeh@thenational.ae