Stick-poking on Ro’ya

Jordan’s most recent sandstorm has faced strong competition in news sources in the past week from the most recent controversy regarding Roya TV, a Jordan-based, locally oriented web and satellite TV channel whose which has gained a lot of popularity in recent years. The point of contention was a video clip showing a sketch from a satirical programme broadcast on the channel a few weeks ago, in which a female presenter – sitting in a studio made to look like it was a show aimed at children – read out what apparently began as children’s stories but ended up describing situations with clear romantic or sexual overtones. The clip was widely circulated and critiqued by “activists” (نشطاء، nušaTaa’) – as the press put it – on social media, and culminated in legal proceedings being initiated against the channel as well as a judicial order to suspend the programme in question by Jordan’s Audiovisual Media Commission, for broadcasting “obscenities” that had offended “public opinion.”

roya storytelling

The clip (screenshot above; the full video can be seen embedded in various news stories e.g. here and here) has the presenter stopping abruptly whenever she reaches an ‘ambiguous’ (i.e., sexually or romantically loaded) section of a children’s story, giving a grimace of surprise or horror, and then rifling through the pages of the book she is holding in order to find a more appropriate story – only to find yet more sexual overtones (and, at the end of the clip, what seems like an especially ‘interesting’ drawing). A long white pole occasionally appears from the left side of the clip, ‘prodding’ the presenter to either continue the current story or look for another one. The most common criticisms – summarised well in this article from the website of the Islamist newspaper al-Sabeel – involve the presenter using “expressions containing sexual overtones” and “perverted scenes” aimed at corrupting younger generations, offending public morals and Islam, etc.

I’ll withhold my opinions as not to litter the blog with too many expletives. From a more measured standpoint, it’s probably worth pointing out how well the whole case fits into the broad “Islamic conservative versus Western moderniser” narrative that outside observers of Jordan love to latch on to (Elena Corbett’s article on the “Halloween ban” controversy last year sketches out the problem well, if tersely). Roya has been dragged into such spats before, with a (not too well populated) Facebook group calling the station out for not broadcasting Islamic calls to prayer – one issue brought up by many criticising the channel in the most recent controversy, along with doubts regarding the station’s ownership being Israeli.

Fadi Zaghmout has a good blog post up (in Arabic) explaining just how utterly misaimed the criticisms of the contentious sketch have been. What its creators were satirising was precisely the kind of social hypocrisy that has little to say against sexual insinuations in certain contexts – including children’s stories, but also for example films and music videos – but is exceedingly paranoid about any kind of attempt to discuss issues of gender and sexuality more openly. (Seen this way, the response then, maybe, proves the creators’ point.)

But as someone who is interested in how Jordanian media functions more broadly, what I think is just as important is how the case reflects on the broader dynamics of media legislation and the media environment in Jordan. This is an environment where social media campaign can drum up a three-week-old programme to the point where the Media Commission can order a broadcast suspension – even as the most recent amendments to Jordan’s Audiovisual Media Law no longer give the Commission the power to do so; an environment pervaded by a kind of constantly hovering, you-never-know-what-will-tick-it-off sense of overarching control, which stimulates self-censorship far more than any attempt at creativity or critical discussion.

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Stick-poking on Ro’ya