Official Media Absent; Facebook Leading Protests

AKEED, Anwar Ziadat and Lana Kazkaz

Official media has failed to cover the nationwide protests that erupted in the wake of several developments, which started with a strike by the professional associations to oppose the draft income tax law, protests over raising fuel prices last Thursday, and other incidents. Apparently, official media has not learned from the lessons of previous crises.

The absence of official media, with its institutions and figures, has exposed the public to rumors and fake news. Social media and external media outlets have taken control. This absence prejudices the right of citizens to know about developments that affect them directly. Meanwhile, the space of alternative media has widened, and news websites have raced to circulate news, which is sometimes inaccurate.

Facebook Leading Media Scene

Social media, especially Facebook and WhatsApp, has served as an important source for citizens in following developments, especially using the "live" feature provided by Facebook. Users shared most of the news by being at protest sites in different locations. Jordan has become a center of attraction, rife with live footage, on the map of Facebook. There are around 5 million accounts for Jordanians on Facebook. Also, Internet access in Jordan has exceeded 85%, while mobile penetration exceeded 135%.

Hashtags were strongly visible on social media networks, most important of which were (#Fourth_Circle) and (#we have no money). These hashtags controlled virtual space. In light of the news vacuum, these networks led developments through their ability to create a new public domain connecting protesters in the streets and squares with citizens at homes.

News websites and social media pages published rumors in the form of news about the dismissal of the government of Hani Mulki. Apparently, these rumors were not attributed to identifiable sources. These could be opinions and predictions, given the circumstances in the Kingdom. This news includes a story headlined "Resignation of Mulki's Government Within Hours." Hours went by, but nothing happened. Other headlines include the following: "Breaking News: Unconfirmed Reports About Resignation of Hani Mulki," "Mulki's Government Expected To Resign; Hussein Majali Strong Candidate for PM," and "Khasawneh, Majali Leading Candidates To Succeed Mulki." At the same time, some news websites published correct headlines, which noted that there had been no decision on the resignation or dismissal of Mulki's government. These headlines include the following: "Mulki: Person Who Designated Me Only One To Dismiss Me," "Rumors: Majali Denies Designation To Form Government Succeeding Mulki," "Truth of Mulki's Resignation," and "Senior Sources: Mulki Has Not Yet Tendered Resignation."

There were some attempts to use social media networks to exaggerate and make up stories occasionally. Some headlines contained expressions that suggest exaggeration. Official statements were needed to keep citizens informed of what was going on, but this did not happen.

Absence of Official Statements, Information

Official entities did not issue statements to clarify the security situation and road conditions throughout the Kingdom. They remained silent, thus causing problems for citizens, especially while driving during nighttime. Citizens were in dire need of such information to avoid heading to closed roads due to protests, specifically highways. Official media failed to provide updates on road conditions.

Also, the official spokesman for the government and the concerned ministers were absent from the media during the protests. Their last appearance was to defend the draft tax law at a news conference held by the information minister, finance minister, and head of the Tax Department on 21 May 2018. Meanwhile, the government campaign to promote the draft law stopped after gaining momentum in the last four weeks at a rate of three stories per day to defend the draft law.

Journalist Ziad Rubaie, director of the training center at the Jordan Press Association, told the Jordanian Media Credibility Monitor that "crises show the professionalism of the media and its ability to keep up with developments. This crisis revealed government control over official media." He indicated that "on the first two days, the newspapers and Jordan TV and Radio did not provide any information about developments. Following developments over the past days shows that the government's denial of controlling the media is untrue."

Osama Rantisi, chief editor of Al Awal News website, said that "when the government finally showed up, having been absent, its official spokespeople lacked the courage to speak. The government used unknown sources, including an informed source, an official source, etc."

Alternative Media

During times of crises, in which there is weakness in the professionalism of media and absence of official information, the space of alternative media increases. This media sometimes lacks accuracy and feeds on rumors and half truths.

The spread of some rumors was the result of the absence of official statements on current developments. Sometimes, these rumors are due to the lack of coordination between some parties, such as the statements issued by the associations. While some websites ran a story headlined "Association Presidents' Council Suspends Strike, Other Protest Activities Next Wednesday," another website ran a story headlined "Association Presidents' Council: Strike Depends on Meeting With Deputies." The website then removed the story. Meanwhile, Mazin Irshaidat, president of the Bar Association, said that the Association Presidents' Council "is continuing with its measures and demand for a general strike on Wednesday to topple the government of Hani Mulki." The story was published under the headline "Irshaidat: We Will Continue Strike To Topple Government."

Websites also ran other stories that show conflicting information issued by the associations under different headlines. A story that was widely reported by news websites claimed that the government had agreed to withdraw the draft income tax law. This story relied on anonymous sources. The government did not issue any statement in this context. This also shows that many websites copy and paste news from other websites without confirming its credibility.

Absence of Official Media

Official media was almost completely absent from covering the protests. State-run TV did not include any coverage in its newscasts. Likewise, the Jordan News Agency did not report the protests, as if they were in a remote country. Parallel news coverage in many private media outlets, specifically television and radio stations, was also absent. These stations were content with running brief news reports. 

Some major dailies (Al Rai and Al Dustour) failed to cover the incidents starting with the Wednesday strike and including the later protests, while coverage by other private media outlets varied. AKEED discussed this aspect of coverage in a separate report.

External news stations provided channels for the continuing flow of news and aired intensive talk shows, mostly hosting Jordanian analysts. Jordanian media, however, had no in-depth discussions and coverage by analytical press declined.

Journalist Ziad Rubaie told AKEED that "the statements by officials, including Mohammad Momani, minister of state for media and communication and official spokesman for the government, to the effect that 49% of negative comments on social media came from Syria and the statements of Finance Minister Omar Malhas about salaries did not reassure the public. These statements ignited public protests anew." Rubaie said that "the credibility of the official media with the public is at its minimum. There is no confidence in the government. The results of the latest poll by the Center for Strategic Studies show this. What applies to the government applies to the official media."

Journalist Osama Rantisi adds that "people have become captive to social media. A lot of its news lacks accuracy. Meanwhile, spokespeople for the official agencies are absent. It is their job and duty to provide information to citizens. People need to know what is going on, such as road and security conditions. They also need to know government attitudes. This absence shows the extent of government confusion in handling developments, and not only confusion in handling the media."