Hona Zarqa: the local women making the media their own

14-09-2013 12:21 PM

Ammon News - By Alice Su/ Middle East Monitor

Sally Ahmed Zarir works in a newsroom inside a refugee camp. Zarqa, Jordan's industrial centre 12 miles northeast of Amman, is home to over 50 per cent of Jordanian's factories, a 15.9 per cent unemployment rate, and the country's oldest Palestinian refugee camp.

24 year-old Zarir is one of fifteen women who report and produce Hona Zarqa, a biweekly newspaper and weekly radio program based in the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA) camp.

Originally set up in 1949, the camp now hosts more than 20,000 refugees and a women's center teaching life skills, computer training and offering psychological counseling. Since January, the center has also become headquarters for a group of local women reporters. They range from 18 to 40 years old. Most are Palestinian; all were born and raised in Zarqa.

At 11:30 a.m on a Monday, Zarir rushes into the broadcast studio of Radio al-Balad, the Amman-based station that plays Hona Zarqa every week. She wears carefully applied eyeliner and a checkered scarf wrapped tight around her face. Zarir smooth's her dress, making sure each gold button is in place before leaning toward the microphone.

Imad al-Momani, Zarqa's new mayor elected just a few days ago, is their call-in guest this week. Zarir stammers at first, but picks up confidence as she continues the interview.

"Sir, official reports cite 823 cases of bribery in the last mayor's term. How do you plan to deal with this corruption?"

As al-Momani answers, another reporter comes into the broadcast room, writes down a few quotes and runs back out to tweet them. Zarir takes calls about the latest stories, new sanitation policy, care for orphans and protests for refugee's rights. She banters with listeners on air until three, two, one, cut - a jingle plays. Zarir takes off her headset and smiles.

Zarqa has no regular local news coverage. It shows up in Jordan's mainstream outlets when the Prime Minister makes a visit and draws international attention to rare events; the current influx of Syrian refugees, for example, or the Salafist clash that happened in Zarqa two years ago.

Jordan's main political opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, has long found its strongest support in Zarqa. The overcrowded city is also a stronghold of Salafist jihadis, many of whom have crossed the Syrian border to fight Islamist rebel factions against the Assad regime.

But even as global media turns to the region and buzzes with talk of Syrian war, Hona Zarqa's women have other topics on their mind, a lack of childcare, election bribery, rising homelessness and garbage burning in Zarqa's streets, to name a few.

"The women have editorial control," says Etaf Roudan, Hona Zarqa's project coordinator, "They tell news that no one else has talked about before."

The Hona Zarqa team is exclusively female, which bucks the trend of traditional Jordanian women's employment. Some people in the conservative Zarqa community find this inappropriate, Zarir said.

"They think women should only work in nursing or teaching," Zarir said. "Even my brother thinks this is bad for girls. But my parents encouraged me, and I still find people to interview."

The bigger obstacle to Hona Zarqa's work is people's unfamiliarity with a media that asks their opinion. Some self-censorship exists, as sources request anonymity and shy away from photos, afraid that the government will follow up on what they have said.

"It's the first time they've ever seen media face-to-face," Roudan said. "Before, the formal agencies would only speak to officials. Now we ask normal citizens what they think."

The Community Media Network (CMN), an independent Jordanian media organization, funded Hona Zarqa. CMN also runs Radio al-Balad, the online news site AmmanNet, and citizen journalism programs with Syrian refugees and rural youth in the Jordan Valley, as well as across the Middle East. The network opened six community radio stations last week, four in the West Bank and two in Gaza.

Daoud Kuttab, director of CMN, says his goal is to "give people a voice."

"Mainstream media reflects the government's line almost exclusively," Kuttab says. International media skims Jordanian news for headline material, but overlooks the problems of an ignored population. Unemployment, inflation and trash-filled streets affect not just Palestinian refugees, but all of Zarqa's residents.

Zarir is proud of the public's response to her reporting.

"We wrote about a water system problem, and then the municipality fixed it," she says. When Hona Zarqa posted a picture of a flaming dumpster on their Facebook page, the new mayor himself wrote a reply.

"I will soon be working on the unpaved roads, infrastructure and janitorial systems," al-Momani posted. "This will take some time, but they are priorities on our agenda."

This is success for Hona Zarqa's women - not fame, but clean streets, responsible officials, and never having to smell burning garbage again.

Zarir points to the mayor's comment and writes a response, reading out loud as she types. "Yes, this is what the people of Zarqa hope."

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