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Government Communication Forum highlights unique challenges faced by Arab governments in adopting open dialogue

posted on 26/02/2013: 2526 views

Day two of the Government Communication Forum 2013 featured a debate addressing the viability of establishing a perfect model for government communication in Arab countries. Titled "Communication in Arab governments: Between Real World Challenges and Promising Structure", the panel highlighted the need for regional governments to transition to more effective, inclusive and strategic communication methods.

Panelists included Octavia Nasr, Former Executive Producer of CNN World Report, former Anchor of CNN International's World News; Jihad Al Khazen, writer and journalist at Al Hayat newspaper; Ali Jaber, Dean of Mohammad Bin Rashid School for Media at the American University in Dubai and Director General of MBC, and Ziyad Baroud, lawyer and former Lebanese Minister of Interior and Municipalities. Zeina Al Yazeji, a Dubai-based journalist and presenter of Al Share'e' program on Dubai TV, moderated the session.

Addressing the regional desire for effective communication between government and its people, Baroud said: "The lack of a solid structure as well as limited sustainable and systematic processes has resulted in difficulty to institutionalise communications within Arab governments. It is important to take into consideration that each government department is different and there is a need to customise responses according to public demand to effectively meet their needs. This stability can be achieved only through a political decision.

"Unfortunately, the Arab world is lagging behind in updating information. With the increased use of new media and channels, the people are compelling governments to react instantly. The authorities have been forced to adopt these channels to avoid missing the dialogue and compromising on the ability to respond to its citizens." Jaber echoed Baroud's thoughts and spoke of the need to eradicate the top-down approach in communications. He said: "In my opinion, it is essential to rethink on the tools, language and design of the message or idea on which communication is built. A more creative approach or an innovative framework for communication needs to be adopted to break down the wall between the government and its people.

"Unfortunately, the media in this part of the world is very cautious - and caution is the very restriction in open communication. The change needs to come from the top. The nation needs to have one effective body that is oriented by the genuine wish of the ruler or government to understand what the people want. An analysis of the general public sentiment, which can now be assessed through new media tools in real-time, will enable governments to design their message to be more coordinated, consistent and unified." Commenting on the role of the government in taking the lead in channelling the flow of communication, Al Khazen said: "Government discourse ought to be properly thought out and channelled. Communication is a prerequisite; but there is a red line. The people should be able to trust their government. There is much truth in the legal statement "the burden of proof lies with the prosecutor" - it is the governments' job to prove its credibility.

"In many countries, governments tend to make promises that exceed their capacity. Governments, as a must, ought to meet the minimum requirement of credibility. Moreover, media channels must be able to portray all sides of the government, not just the positives. Transparency is critical, and, in my opinion, this is not an impossible feat." In agreement with Jaber, Octavia Nasr stressed the need to abolish the "we" and "them" concepts and distinction in the pursuit of more effective communication. She said: "Governments need to find a way to reach out to the public as an authority that is genuinely interested in resolving problems. When media channels are obligated to paint a positive picture and convey only certain facts, for instance, an opinion is being forced onto the public. Clearly, there is a gap between the government and its people that needs to be bridged. Perhaps the first steps in the right direction is discussing the issues through forums such as these and arriving at sustainable solutions to break that barrier." "Setting targets to establish the purpose of communication - be it to inform, convince, propagate or market - is critical. One may be a politician or an artist or even a company, but each has its own way of communication, with different agendas." Octavia Nasr is a veteran of the news industry with more than 27 years of experience, she has served CNN as Senior Editor of Mideast Affairs and Co-Creator of the network's digital international news-gathering strategy. During her 20-year tenure at CNN, Nasr held several high profile positions including Executive Producer of Ted Turner's brainchild CNN World Report and anchor of CNN International's World News.

Ziad Baroud is a legal adviser to several United Nations agencies in Lebanon. In addition to serving as a member of the committee responsible for updating laws in the Ministry of Justice, Baroud is President of Special Commission for administrative decentralisation in the country. He was invited by the French Foreign Ministry to participate in the meetings of the Lebanese dialogue in France. Baroud has also observed the municipal elections in 2004 and the parliamentary elections in 2005, leading a group of 1,350 observers. A lecturer at the University of Saint Joseph, Baroud has authored legal publications, articles and lectures.

Ali M. Jaber concurrently serves on the board of Young Arab Leaders (YAL) and the American University of Beirut, School of Architecture and Design, in Beirut, Lebanon. Earlier, he was mandated to set up the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Communication (MBRSC). Previously, he was tasked to lead Dubai Media Incorporated (DMI) and re-launch the group's four national pan-Arab satellite channels. He eventually took over as DMI's Managing Editor.

Jihad Al Khazen is a member of the Board of Directors of the Arab Thought Foundation and the Abdulaziz Al Babtain Prize Foundation for Poetic Creativity. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies at the Georgetown University, and Media Leaders at the World Economic Forum (Davos). Al Khazen has served as the editor of leading news publications including Reuters and Daily Star in Beirut, and the Arab News in Jeddah. The first editor-in-chief of Asharq Al Awsat newspaper in London, he held the same position at the Al-Hayat newspaper for more than 10 years. He has also authored a large body of work, which includes his latest book The Neo-Conservatives and Christian Zionists'.

Sharjah Media Centre launched the inaugural Government Communication Forum in 2012. A first-of-its-kind event, the forum articulates Sharjah Media Centre's efforts to develop government communication mechanisms for the benefit of government institutions in the UAE and the region. - Emirates News Agency, WAM


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