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‘Arab governments have failed to communicate’

Sharjah forum debates state correspondence and attitude towards masses

Gulf News

Sharjah: Arab governments have largely failed to communicate and reach out to their citizens and residents, with state correspondence “silly and irrelevant” at times, a forum heard yesterday.

Media persons on the last day of the two-day Sharjah Government Communication Forum (GCF) took aim at what they described as a lack of meaningful dialogue between officials and the public.

Panellists of a GCF session on Arab government communication said officials in the Middle East must shun a “top-down approach” towards the masses and “join the conversation”.

They also complained of a perceived fear of officials when reporting sensitive news, lagging state broadcasters, unqualified staff in satellite media and a failure to take full advantage of social media.

“Government communication is ineffective and stupid sometimes. The tools, language, design of message and ideas — on which communication is built — is not effective most of the time. If communication is irrelevant, it’s silly and a waste of money,” said Ali Jaber, dean and assistant professor of communication and information studies of the Mohammad Bin Rashid School of Communication at the American University Dubai and group TV director at MBC.

“You need to get rid of this top-down approach… A spokesperson must be credible, talk clearly with focus — not say words that have nothing to do with the content of the message.”

Hinting at perceived self-censorship in the Arab press, Jaber added: “People in media are so cautious in this part of the world; caution is the enemy of creativity.”

He was one of the speakers at the session on Communication in Arab Governments: Between Real World Challenges and Promising Structure.

Another panellist, Jihad Al Khazen, a journalist at Al Hayat newspaper, agreed but pointed out the critiques were a generalisation.

“We [media in the Arab world] need to have the minimum required credibility and rule of law. Most of our Arab countries fail to achieve these goals, but generalising is a problem here,” Al Khazen said.

Jaber said according to his research, 200 Arab satellite media services are managed by 700,000 people — but that figure does not explain a lower rate of media graduates.

“Ninety per cent of those who work in satellite have no [media] qualification at all. [Hence] they didn’t understand the (media) code of conduct that’s insult to injury. [They should know] there’s a difference between ‘communication’ and reaching out,” Jaber added.

Also supporting greater dialogue between state and subjects was Octavia Nasr, former executive producer of CNN World Report and former anchor of CNN International World News. When asked how she would encourage dialogue if given the opportunity to work with the Sharjah government, Octavia said: “My advice would be that you need to abolish the top-down way. There should be no ‘we’ and ‘them’. If I’m not part of ‘them,’ then how can I communicate with them?

“Of course, officials will remain officials and citizens will remain citizens, but we can bring them closer together.”

In a speech on Monday, SMC director Osama Samra said: “As a continuation of our endeavour to promote the importance of good government communication, we will honour innovators in this field at the inaugural Sharjah Government Communication Award in September.

“Designed to stimulate creativity, honour achievements and encourage professionals in regional government communications, this award further strengthens our pledge to support best practice.”

He added: “During the course of a year we have transformed it [GCF] into a progressive platform that addresses the complex issues at the heart of public dialogue. “A commitment to finding solutions to critical issues through discussion and interaction at all levels is the mandate of this forum.”

GCF was launched in 2012 as an annual event. This year it has attracted some 500 participants and more than 2,000 registrations.

Meanwhile, session moderator Zeina Al Yaziji, media person at Dubai TV and presenter of the Arab Street programme, said there appeared to be a “missing link between plan and execution of the plan” when it came to effective government communication.

She mentioned as examples her attempts to obtain information through official government websites in Lebanon and Sharjah.

“[In the case of Lebanon] there was a swift response: ‘the mailbox is full.’”

Meanwhile, the official Sharjah government website — which she did not specify — had no mention of GCF under its upcoming government events list.

Commenting on Zeina’s experience, Ziad Baroud, a lawyer who is a former Lebanon minister of interior, said: “I was at the ministry and a person complained about a blackout [power outage]. I asked: ‘Why are you calling us?’ He said: ‘Because you answer to people’.”

On the missing link issue, Baroud said: “Today, there’s Facebook and Twitter, [government officials] are compelled to respond and to be there [on social media]. If you’re not there, you’ll miss the dialogue.”

Zeina said 80 per cent of Arabs feel their governments “don’t listen to us”, based on a survey of Dubai TV social media followers.

A further 75 per cent suspect government attempts to connect with the “Arab Street” were meant to be in the state’s interests rather than a genuine attempt to reach out to ordinary people, Zeina added.

“It’s the demand of the people, of the world, to air their concerns. Communication between government and people is a necessity. Communication needs the protection of law,” Zeina said.

“It abolishes barriers between two parties [while] isolation leads to extremism and backwardness.”

Meanwhile, it was announced that GCF organiser Sharjah Media Centre (SMC) would award innovation in government communication in September.