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Jordan Times turns 41, keeps fighting

By Rand Dalgamouni - Oct 26,2016 - Last updated at Oct 26,2016

AMMAN — The Jordan Times marks its 41st anniversary on Thursday.

Four decades after the paper’s first issue hit the newsstands, the Kingdom’s only English daily soldiers on despite the seemingly perpetual issue of understaffing and lack of resources.

Rana Sabbagh, who was chief editor of the JT from 1999 to 2001, said that without sufficient resources, the paper cannot keep its highly-qualified staff members, noting that it is difficult to find and recruit professional journalists who are also proficient in English.

The Jordan Press Foundation (JPF), which publishes the JT and Al Rai, has failed to realise the importance of the paper as Jordan’s “image maker”, said Sabbagh, who worked for the JT in the 1980s, before moving to Reuters and then returning to the paper in 1998.

In 1999, Sabbagh became the first woman chief editor of a political daily in the region.

“The foundation should have invested in The Jordan Times back in the day when it was making millions,” she added, referring to the time when print media was not dealing with the financial and existential challenges it faces today.

Without the required resources, Sabbagh explained, the JT cannot properly expand to produce multimedia content or build a collective journalism culture, since many of its journalists end up leaving to work  elsewhere.

Some of JT’s editorial staff members, however, have chosen to stay on despite these limitations.

Managing Editor Ica Wahbeh, who has been working for the JT for 27 years, said: “Irrespective of the conditions, the paper has been consistent in its policy and output”. 

She described the 16-page daily, which started out with six pages and expanded to eight around the time of the Gulf War in 1990-91, as “a serious political publication that covers impartially local issues and allows a peek into world news, that wishes to inform the readers but also allows a measure of interaction with them, that is informative yet entertaining, and that desires to serve the people and the country objectively and constructively”.

The JT, whose launch was supported by HRH Prince Hassan and other key figures, expanded later to 12 pages, increasing again in the late 1990s to its current size and expanding online.

“Gone are the days when we, night-duty editors, had to make sure that the manually assembled paper had the right headline above the text, that the photo matched the story or that the article ended where it should, not where the montage technician decided it had to,” said Wahbeh, who is now the editor of the JT’s opinion pages and has previously worked on the world news and lifestyle pages.

“Times have changed… and print media suffer. Who wants to turn the pages and smell the ink when the click of a button opens up an entire coloured and colourful world on a small portable screen? Who wants to read yesterday's news when real-time information is available 24 hours?” she asked.

“These are challenges that may be difficult to surmount. Only by reinventing itself, by offering interesting analysis and reports can a newspaper hope to survive. And by constantly adapting to the times and adopting technology,” Wahbeh added.

“Gone are… many of our colleagues. Some to better places, some to better-paid places, some gone from among us. We, the very few left behind, fondly remember them and reminisce about ‘the good old days’,” she said.

Marwan Muasher, who worked as a JT columnist in the 1980s, is one of many JT staffers who have gone on to great professional success, serving as deputy prime minister and Royal Court chief.

“The local media atmosphere was different then. The English language allowed us to tackle sensitive issues we could not write about in Arabic. Things have changed now,” he said. 

“That is why many of the journalists who worked at the JT are now writing in Arabic, and have made a name for themselves not just in Jordan, but in the region.

“People like Rana Sabbagh, Randa Habib, Rana Husseini, Rania Atalla, Salameh Nematt, Saad Hattar, Sana Abdallah, Lamis Andoni, Ayman Safadi, the late Abdullah Hasanat and the non-replaceable Jenny Hamarneh, and many, many more,” added Muasher, whose political career started when he was appointed as media adviser to Prince Zeid Bin Shaker when he formed his first government in 1989.

In addition to Hasanat, Hamarneh, Sabbagh and Safadi, past chief editors of the JT include George Hawatmeh, Rami G. Khouri, Walid Sadi and Elia Nasrallah.

“There are few places in one’s life that he/she calls home. The Jordan Times is one of them for me. I worked there during my formative years, became exposed to the challenges the country faces at close distance, and had a chance to express my views in ways I could not otherwise. I owe my current career to the beginnings I had at the JT. It does and will always occupy a special place in my heart and mind,” Muasher added.

Likewise, Nermeen Murad, now a leading activist and researcher, looks back fondly on her days at the JT.

“[The] Jordan Times… from the early 80s and through the 90s — the period that I worked there — gave a liberal group of 20 somethings a place to exercise their writing and reporting skills, but also learn about the country’s political system, its power bases and their key holders,” she said.

“Driven by a strong sense of social justice, our group was idealistic, confident and optimistic. We believed that we were able to create change.  We were openly liberal and loved engaging in long political conversations about what works and what doesn’t for the country,” Murad recalled.

“I think it was this intellectual environment — fostered and encouraged by our editors… that made The Jordan Times a leader in local journalism at that time of critical political transition in the country,” she added.

The year 1989 witnessed a return to democratic life in the Kingdom after years of martial law.

The consecutive governments during the following period, according to Murad, “had a strong sense of the importance of the media and therefore engaged with The Jordan Times and respected its journalists”. 

Current Chief Editor Samir Barhoum, who has been working at the JT since 1988, said the family-like atmosphere at the paper is the reason he has stayed on.

“We work because we feel we own this paper. I’m thankful to the team I work with and we will continue to do our job to the best of our ability,” he said.

“We used to walk to the newspaper when roads were blocked because of snow, and stay all night, sometimes until after dawn to follow up on news. We will continue to be the eyes and ears of the public,” Barhoum added, stressing the need to work with the JPF management to improve the paper and find a way to move forward as the media industry evolves. 

 

“We will continue to fight for causes such as freedom of expression, equality and the rule of law. We, as citizens of this country, believe in these causes and share a deep sense of belonging to this homeland,” he said.

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