Jun 23 2010

Jordan’s Media Fails in Times of Economic Difficulties

Published by at 1:36 pm under Articles,Jordan

(this was published in June 23rd, 2010)

By Daoud Kuttab

Media and governments have always had a love-hate relationship. While they both need each other, the attempts by one to overwhelm the other (especially when governments try to control media) have often led to unpleasant results.If one agrees that both want what is best for the country, then it is imperative that the executive power and the fourth estate respect the independence of one another. However, if there is lack of trust in the fundamental goal, then the outcome puts into question the country’s long term outlook.

Wanting what is best for the country means that governments are working on plans that take into consideration the needs and aspirations of all sectors of society without favoritism. On the other hand, the media must understand that wanting the best for the country means that they need to avoid knee-jerk positions or partisan editorial policies.

The government has recently taken some tough and painful economic policies which, it says, are necessary to overcome the country’s double-digit debt (about JD11 billion). The media, for the most part, have been either silent or supportive, with a few voices of opposition appearing here and there.

A look at the period that preceded the government’s plan shows a lack of forthrightness in involving citizens in discussions about the best way forward. The Parliament was dissolved 213 days ago and the government has done little to involve the public’s other representatives — the media — in the discussions of what is needed to relieve the economic dangers facing Jordan.

The Parliament, many argue, was dissolved because of its bad performance on many fronts, including the economy. Days before being dissolved, the executive branch had submitted a law charging banks 25 per cent tax and the legislative branch decided — without much scientific thinking or studies — to hike the rate 10 per cent more, to 35 per cent. Some argue that if allowed to pass, such a hike would have resulted in the flight of existing banks and would have been a strong disincentive for other potential banks to set up shop in Jordan. Most of the media toed the line, singing praises to consecutive governments and failing in their primary duty of representing the pains and aspirations of the public who it is said to represent. Jordanian media failed to warn the public about the impeding economic difficulties and played no serious role in helping governments understand what the public wants and the level of tax hikes it would tolerate.

Not only were the media on vacation before the recent passing of the tax hikes and fees on gas, phone calls, coffee, water and other items, they continued to hibernate afterward.

The main Jordanian papers and many of the leading news websites failed to give this story what it deserves in terms of information, analysis and commentary. Columnists avoided writing stories about the state of the economy, and when they covered it, the public was given conflicting information, like about the government raising taxes but prices going down.

It is not clear how much of the media apathy is internal and how much of it is a result of external pressure, but whatever the reason, genuine public feedback is essential to the success of any government project.

Most worrisome would be to have this lukewarm reaction to the latest painful economic decisions come from the fear that allowing the public to express itself would be somehow akin to sowing discontent. This would be a mistaken idea. The public and governments must agree to work together for what is best for the country, not just short term but on long term as well.

The government insists that there was no alternative to the painful policies it enacted, putting the blame (whether consciously or unconsciously) on previous administrations. This might be true, but the public has to be allowed to scrutinize the current policies properly and the citizens have to be allowed to express their true feelings. If such an opportunity is given, this government will succeed in avoiding falling into some of the mistakes that previous governments made when they tried to protect their?short-term policies without paying attention to long-term implications.

Independent media working with a confident government based on agreed-upon long term goals is the best formula for the country as a whole.

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