An economist friend of mine argued this weekend that while a country could show economic growth, tangible development could only be achieved if growth were married to a credible democratisation process.
I absolutely agree, but want to take it further and say that the democratisation process could only be viable if the government removes cronies from its communication departments, newspapers and official media outlets and adopts a language that respects the minds of the people and their right to information. The government must become engaged as a stakeholder in a viable media environment, and not as the controller and censor.
The events of the last few weeks have showed how the Arab youth are using different forms of communication to circumvent government control of the media and overcome the government-imposed impediments to the flow of information to the public and from the public back to the political leadership.
Government agents in the official and semi-official media have failed miserably in defending their leadership or presenting a balancing argument with any credibility among the masses. This failure of the official media is exacerbating an already tenuous relationship between the Arab peoples and their leadership, and in my opinion was one of the main reasons for the uprising against existing regimes and governments.
In Jordan, the quick demise of the government of Samir Rifai was in no small way the direct result of a failed media policy that attacked critics with superiority and disregard for the others’ opinions. The distance the people felt from the centres of decision making in the country was created by a systematic ostracisation of dissenting voices and marginalisation of the “less pliable” media personalities.
Officialdom surrounded itself with a group of columnists who drummed support for the government and volunteered to spin news to the government’s advantage. The lines between journalism and opinion-based commentary were blurred as more and more “columnists” invaded the pages of newspapers at the expense of credible news reporting and/or honest investigative reporting.
Delivery of news no longer required professionalism, transparency or skill, as newspaper pages became plastered with pictures of officials, senior officials and even more senior officials “inspecting”, “visiting”, “ordering”, but never providing the reader with an insight into the history of the sector, the challenges, the achievements, the available funding or any information of any credibility beyond the smiling faces of ever-changing lines of officials in suits.
News presenters donned their stage smiles and without even blinking, read uninspiring news items one after another as if they were soldiers executing their duty and not facilitators of a communication opportunity to inspire and inform the citizen.
Can the citizen be faulted for believing that every official is self serving and every project is a corruption episode? Can the citizen be criticised for losing faith not only in the media but in the official circles that control it? Can the citizens do anything else but believe the more inspiring and exciting - and seemingly credible - news of Al Jazeera?
As I watched news from Egypt over the weekend, I flicked between the “balanced” reporting from the professionals and the “inciting” reporting from the agenda-driven stations, and on a whim, I turned to the “official” Egyptian television to find it stuck in rhetoric, untruths and misleading reporting.
I recognised the language for its similarity to the language I read in official newspapers here and listen to on official television and radio stations. I recognised the claims of “internal and external saboteurs” and the philosophising behind the denial of peoples’ demands.
The lack of credibility was evident and explained why the protesters did not trust any of the reported concessions of the political leadership.
I worry here in Jordan that as we speak of reform we forget to guide reform into the media sector and start the process of regaining the credibility of our information agents and the political leadership behind them.
The government must wake up to the importance of the media not in order to stifle them, but to partner with them to serve the country.
The government must wake up to the need to provide a nourishing and free environment for information to flow from it and to it, on an equal footing.
Governance is no longer a top-down operation; it is a partnership built on the exchange of information and positive communication. Let us wake up on all fronts, but certainly let us allow democracy to have a footing in our midst, and let us begin with our own ranks in the media. We need to change the mindset, the language and the methods of communication.
*Published in the JORDAN TIMES on Feb. 7, 2011.