Payton Bruni is a journalism student at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, who is also minoring in Arabic Studies.
Throughout the summer of 2018, I spent my time in the Jordan capital of Amman - my first effort at reporting in a Middle Eastern country.
I went in as a novice freelancer, having a few published stories here and there, but I saw this as a stepping stone towards a career as a Middle Eastern reporter. While I had some grasp of the Arabic language, I knew nothing about what to expect or where to begin.
One of the first questions I needed to answer was how the journalism industry in Middle Eastern countries differed from the West. Did Jordan have robust press freedom or was it heavy-handed on journalists? Were there any cultural considerations I needed to bear in mind throughout my reporting?
In order to get to grips with reporting from this region, I wanted to consult active professionals rather than Google, so I did some homework. I sought the advice of just about every journalist in Jordan who would speak with me, from veteran freelancers to an editor at Syria Direct, and a reporter with Roya News.
By doing so, I learned a number of tips that any journalist looking to report in Jordan or any other Arabic countries could find useful, so here are my key lessons learned and takeaways:
Avoid angering the government
Know what topics the government is sensitive to and understand the consequences before covering them.
The first piece of advice I received was also a warning. In Jordan, you soon learn not to report anything negative about the country’s ruler King Abdullah II.
Pursuing a story portraying him in a negative light would be a quick way to annoy the government. This would risk the possibility of getting ghosted by every government official you attempt to contact or being persecuted by authorities.
People would warn me I would have a hard time finding any publisher that would accept such a story. Jordan has better press freedom than several other countries in the Middle East, but authorities are not afraid to shut-down news outlets that routinely criticise the government. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has Jordan ranked 132nd out of 180 on their 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
RSF best sums it up: “Jordan’s media take care to observe the red lines set by the authorities. Journalists are subject to close surveillance by the intelligence services and must be affiliated to the state-controlled Jordanian Press Association.”
Understand the regulatory system
Familiarise yourself with the major parties involved in a country’s news environment and know what they stand for.
Based on the conversations I had with journalists in Jordan, the press regulators, the Jordan Press Association (JPA), is either perceived as a joke or as an authority figure, depending on whom you ask.
Preserving the integrity of journalism is one of the JPA’s core values but some of the actions the organisation took during my time in Jordan seemed contradictory.
In July 2018, the JPA urged the government to pass a law that would regulate the profession of journalism in Jordan. It proposed that only members of the JPA should be allowed to practice journalism and any non-members claiming to be journalists should receive a fine or jail time.
This was alarming for a freelancer who had just arrived in the country. Despite the move being ultimately rejected by the government, just hearing about the issue as it developed served as a wake-up call. If such a law had been in place and I unknowingly went about Jordan introducing myself as a journalist, I could have been on the fast track to a jail cell.
The key point is to be fully prepared and well-informed on the controlling powers and major players, particularly in a Middle Eastern country where the stakes are higher.
Recognise the power of connections
Understand the cultural considerations involved in your reporting. For the Middle East, this means knowing the importance of 'wasta'.
On arrival, this was a new term I was not familiar with, but a Jordanian journalist explained to me that 'wasta' is the Arabic equivalent of 'connections' or 'who you know', and it is a useful term to understand.
In the Arab world, connections are everything. You will struggle without them and this was definitely the experience I had. The defining difference between an immediate callback or radio silence from a commissioning editor is normally whether you have the contacts or not to back up the pitch.
Western journalists can certainly appreciate the value of connections as an essential part of our day-to-day jobs and career but in the Middle East, it is an even more crucial concept. A valued source inside or outside the region significantly improves your ability to freelance or keep you out of harm's way.
Do you want to become a successful freelancer? Learn new skills and get a certificate in freelance feature writing, pitching, copywriting, sub-editing and more. Click here for more information
Free daily newsletter
- Buzzfeed, Gal-dem, VICE…: What the closure of big digital media brands means for freelancers
- How The Bristol Cable is diversifying its freelancing opportunities
- Fiona O'Brien of Reporters Without Borders, on the state of UK press freedom
- RSF Index: Press freedom is "bad" in seven out of ten countries
- UK’s first awards scheme for freelance journalists opens