Can the media gap with decentralization be bridged?
The term "decentralisation" has become a common part of the Jordanian lexicon, appearing in various publications, discussions and public speeches in recent years. His Majesty King Abdullah has often referred to "decentralisation" in his speeches, discussion papers and his letters of appointment to various governments since 2011. The topic has gradually changed from aspiration, to discussion and, finally, to legislation as Parliament approved the first Decentralisation Law that prepared the legislative framework for the first elections of governorate councils in the fall of 2017.
Yet, despite all these back and forth discussions and debates over decentralisation, and even after the law was passed, most Jordanians remain ignorant of the decentralisation process, even after they voted for their own governorate councils.
There is no doubt that there are many reasons for this ignorance on decentralisation. There is still a general lack of clarity and hesitation in the implementation of the goals of decentralisation and, more importantly, in passing the authority to the governorate councils.
Nevertheless, part of the problem in having a robust public engagement has been the absence of a strategic media plan that aims at explaining the goals of the plan of decentralisation and encouraging the public to engage positively with this project.
What is needed is a way forward, to bridge the gap, both from the side of media regulations as well as from the side of local institutions, considering owning and or running outlets that can produce local content. Obviously, local radio is one such platform, but with the digital revolution many other options exist today. What is lacking though is a way to bridge the huge gap that exists today, where a small fraction of journalists and media outlets are based outside the capital, and more importantly, very little information and discussion about life outside the Amman bubble exists in the centralised media.
Sure, whenever the King or prime minister visits a location, the story gets front-page coverage, but during the rest of the year no one from the capital engages with these communities and there are no credible and available media outlets to fill the vacuum that continues to exist.
In terms of regulations, Jordanian media laws are far behind the rest of the world in terms of allowing not-for-profit NGOs and community-based organisations to own and run media, especially mass media. FM radio licences are restricted to for-profit companies or public institutions, such as public universities. While many universities have set up local radio stations, the neutrality and independence of these outlets is restricted by the fact that they are run mostly as public relations for the universities or as training platforms for media university students. There has hardly been a case in which a public university-based radio station has taken on public issues with courage and independence.
While bridging the media-decentralisation divide needs to begin with government-appointed regulators, other state bodies need to be involved, while local communities need to change gears and get into the frame mind of being the managers of how information about them is delivered.
I remember visiting a local NGO in the Jordan Valley town of Deir Alla, where local leaders told me that they see Jordan TV crew only if a senior official visits and even then, the reports they watch at night reflect almost exclusively what these officials said rather than the problems and challenges expressed by locals. Such a quandary can only be resolved when local communities are organised enough to insist on setting up, owning and running their own media outlets.
The digital revolution has given plenty of opportunities for leaders and community organisers to engage their local communities. The simplest thing would be to set up a local website, a social media account or even an online broadcast of important events in their town or village. Why can local councils not set up a simple operation of broadcasting, over Facebook or YouTube, their monthly local council meetings? The same can be said about the newly-elected governorate councils, whose job it is to decide how funds from the capital are to be spent in their local government. Would it not be great if local councils or local governorates broadcast live their sessions, which are legally bound to be open to the public?
Naturally, to bridge this gap, the regulatory environment must be changed, local communities must commit to dedicating human resources and providing them with media training and skill-building so that they can help keep people in their communities informed. International research shows that local communities that support local media tend to be more cohesive, more efficient, more productive and less prone to mass migration to cities. A serious push towards governmental, administrative and budgetary decentralisation naturally requires a parallel effort in media decentralisation and community empowerment.