Jordan's Leadership Must Communicate

After attending a debate about the new Jordanian elections law, the moderator, Hiba Obeidat told me that MP Abdullah Ensour wanted to talk to me. Ensour, who in the debate organized by Community Media Network, opposed the current elections law, told me he had seen me on TV in the U.S. years earlier. I had appeared with Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline special talking about the first Palestinian Intifada and Ensour felt that I had done a good job communicating the Palestinian cause.

I thought of this exchange as Ensour was asked to lead Jordan's government in the four-month transitional period that will witness parliamentary elections and, hopefully, the first parliamentary government in the Kingdom.

The reason I thought of this exchange was the failure of earlier governments in Jordan to master one of the basic elements of governance: communication.

When governments make decisions, especially difficult ones, they need to have the ability to explain these decisions to the widest segment of the population. It is important to include the public in discussions about such decisions.

Over the past year, Jordanians saw their government pass a controversial elections Law and amend the press and publications law with a minimum level of communication. The previous government also raised prices, causing strong public opposition and the King to roll back the decision that probably had to be made but was never properly communicated and therefore rejected by the public.

Some leaders like to address the public through televised speeches. While this is effective, it is a tool that should not be used for ordinary issues. National security issues, wars and extreme economic situations require such a direct TV talk.

U.S. presidents use radio, rather than TV, to make a weekly short statement on an issue of importance that week. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has adopted this format and uses it to explain the policy of the Palestinian Authority and its plans on different economic and social issues.

However, many of the issues that need to be communicated require a different format. Leaders have chosen different manners to deal with these issues.

Some use press conferences, thus allowing for an exchange of ideas with journalists representing the public. While this format might not be appropriate on a weekly basis, there is no reason why government spokesmen shouldn't use it on regular basis to communicate government policies and to respond to the public questions.

Choosing to communicate, however, is not enough. While Jordan's national TV and radio, as well as the official news agency are easily available to the government (which owns and runs them) these outlets are not enough. The majority of the population in Jordan is young and it rarely reads the official Petra News or watches Jordanian television.

It is important that the government step out of its comfort zone and use independent -- and even slightly critical -- media. Giving interviews to such media outlets will no doubt mean having to deal with difficult questions, but the ability to deal with such questions on such media will go a long way in convincing the public of the seriousness of the government.

A resolution to communicate is important, but it should also include a much more courageous decision, namely to be honest and truthful with the public. Jordanians know very well the difficult economic situation the country goes through, and would be willing to accept difficult verdicts as long as that is done on a fair and equitable basis, where the rich do not get richer and the poor poorer.

Jordanians have a long history of governments not being totally honest with them. Jordanian officials have, for example, admitted that previous elections were rigged to suit the government. The Independent Elections Commission is trying hard to overcome this problem, but it will take a lot of work to make the public trust officials.

The same has to be applied to the issue of government-subsidized energy prices. The government is correct when it says that subsidizing energy costs (apparently at the cost of nearly $2 billion a year) helps the rich and the visitors, but few trust that if the subsidy is removed the government would make it up for the middle class and the poor. The public needs to be assured that the government is fair in covering this cost and that the mechanism will not turn them into beggars waiting in long lines for a small subsidy, as happened in the past.

Literacy rates are high in Jordan; so is the level of understanding complex issues. This means that the government must communicate regularly, fairly and honestly, using different media outlets. Attempts to ignore the public or try to fool it will be quickly discovered.

The most important job for the current prime minister is that of a communicator in chief. The better he performs this job the better Jordan will be at passing through this difficult phase.