Contradiction in Official Statements on Budget, Subsidy Figures Confuses Media Performance

AKEED, Husam Assal

Contradiction and inaccuracy in reporting figures have marred the performance of many media outlets in their coverage of the details of government subsidy within the general budget law. Inaccuracy in official and government statements has been an important reason for conflicting information, thus confusing media outlets and causing them to fall into the trap of lack of credibility.

Finance Minister Omar Malhas delivered a speech to the Lower House of Parliament on the general budget draft law and the draft law of the budgets of government units for fiscal year 2018, which included an item on social safety net (cash subsidy to eligible people) worth 171 million dinars. This is part of what Malhas said was "a government trend to provide subsidy to eligible Jordanian citizens instead of subsidizing goods."

Malhas outlined certain criteria for distributing subsidy as follows:

  1. Subsidy will include all households whose total income does not exceed 12,000 dinars annually. For individuals, the income is set at 6,000 dinars annually.
  2. An eligible household may not own two (private) cars or more or own land or property worth more than 300,000 dinars.

Media outlets have reported conflicting figures of the households that are eligible to receive cash subsidy. Al Rai daily reported that "5.2 million Jordanians are eligible to receive subsidy estimated at 171 million dinars," citing an "informed source." Meanwhile, the Jordan News Agency "Petra" reported that Prime Minister Hani Mulki had explained during his meeting with the presidents of professional associations that "Jordanians who will receive subsidy are estimated at 5.125 million."

Petra reported that Minister of Industry and Trade Yarub Qudah had said in front of the Finance Committee of the Lower House of Parliament that "if the criteria for distributing subsidy are adopted, the conditions will apply to 5.5 million Jordanian citizens." Al Ghad daily ran a report on the same meeting, citing Qudah as saying that "69% of Jordanians will receive cash subsidy, which is equivalent to around 5.2 million citizens."

An electronic site introduced a new figure concerning beneficiaries, saying that "it can be concluded that the government has limited subsidy to 5,343,750 Jordanians out of more than 10 million Jordanian citizens by 53%." The website said that Jordanian citizens totaled 10 million.

The Population Clock on the Department of Statistics website says that the population is close to 10,029,000. This figure includes Jordanians and non-Jordanians. The Population and Housing Census of 2015 said that the population of Jordan was 9,531,712, including 2,918,125 non-Jordanians.

The same website shows that the number of beneficiaries stands at 53%, while government and official sources put it at 69% of Jordanian citizens.

Some media outlets have mixed up the name of the item in the general budget. A report on one website said that "the government allocated 171 million dinars as cash allowance for canceling bread subsidy and amending tax on foodstuffs and services, according to government figures." This paragraph contradicted the headline of the report itself: "171 Million Allocated as Allowance for Bread Subsidy." Another website ran a report headlined "500 Million Dinars New Taxes on Jordanians…and 171 Million Cash Subsidy as Allowance for Raising Bread Prices."

Al Ghad daily was more accurate in detailing the amount of the subsidy. It reported that the minister of industry and trade had told the Finance Committee that "the value of this item in the budget of next year is around 171 million dinars, 70 million dinars of which will be for bread subsidy and 101 million dinars will be subsidy for raising the sales tax on some manufactured goods."

The minister of finance told the Lower House of Parliament that "171 million dinars have been allocated under the item social safety net (cash subsidy for eligible persons)," without saying that the amount is allocated solely for lifting the bread subsidy.

There has been another contradiction involving the number of Jordanians abroad. Some media outlets cited Minister Qudah as telling the Finance Committee of the Lower House of Parliament that 69% of Jordanians would receive cash subsidy, which is 5.2 out of 7.65 million citizens. Qudah said that 32,000 Jordanian households live abroad. The Department of Statistics had revealed that there were 34,951 Jordanians abroad, according to the Population and Housing Census of 2015.

A study conducted by the Jordan Strategy Forum in March 2017 under the headline "Jordanian Expatriates: Opportunity and Challenge" showed that "the number of Jordanian expatriates is estimated at 782,015." Sabah Al Rafie, former official spokeswoman of the Foreign Ministry, told AKEED last July that "according to ministry statistics for 2017, Jordanian expatriates stand at 950,000." She told AKEED that "the figures of expatriates keep changing; they are inaccurate. We cannot confirm the assumption that expatriates are back to settle down or to spend their vacation." However, the number announced by Qudah is significantly at odds with official studies and figures. According to the number of households that he declared, the average number of expatriate household members will range between 24 and 30, which is illogical.  

There was great contradiction in the value of the subsidy upon expanding its segment or extending it to all Jordanians. Al Ghad daily said that Minister Qudah had told the Finance Committee of the Lower House of Parliament that "if the government changes the criteria it set, for example by raising the ceiling of cars per household to more than two instead of more than one, then the value of the subsidy will drop to 29 dinars per capita annually. If the government removes all criteria and includes all Jordanians in the subsidy, its value will drop to 25 dinars per capita annually."

Meanwhile, Al Rai daily reported, according to an "informed source," that "when dividing around 170 million dinars by the number of eligible persons, the subsidy will be close to 32 dinars, while if the subsidy is expanded, it will not be more than 14 dinars." Many websites highlighted this in their headlines. This shows the contradiction between the value of 25 dinars in the event of including all Jordanians, according to Minister Qudah, and the value of 14 dinars in the event of expanding the subsidy segment, according to the source of Al Rai newspaper.

Qudah told the Finance Committee of the Lower House of Parliament about the story of an Egyptian migrant worker, who "concluded a deal with a bakery owner in Ain Janna in Ajloun three years and a half ago to run the bakery on his behalf and pay him a fixed monthly amount. Today, this worker is driving a Land Cruiser worth 55,000 dinars in the streets of Ain Janna. The money he made is not from selling bread, but from trading in "government subsidized" flour. Poor guy! Well, he does not deserve any sympathy." 

News websites said that they "contacted the Egyptian worker whom Qudah referred to. The worker said that he bought the bakery 17 years ago, that he and his sons work in it, and that his car is a Ford worth 12,000 dinars. He added that he is paying part of its price by installments and that the minister apologized to him on the phone and informed him that the wrong information came from one of the officials."

The Jordanian Media Credibility Monitor (AKEED) contacted Mohammed Ziyoud, a journalist specialized in parliamentary affairs in Al Rai daily, and asked him about the reason for the contradiction in information in the media concerning government subsidy. Ziyoud said that "government officials make different statements. Sometimes, officials speak about the same piece of information, but use different terms (such as number of households and number of individuals)."

He added that "government officials do not observe accuracy when making statements. They provide different estimates. They cite figures in front of MPs without checking the real and accurate figures. This leads to contradiction and discrepancy."

Ziyoud gave an example that shows the inaccuracy of the statements made by ministers concerning the number of beneficiaries from government subsidy. Figures have varied and have lacked accuracy. He complained that journalists are unable to speak and make inquiries during the meetings of parliamentary committees in order to confirm a specific piece of information.

He said that the media tried to investigate some information, such as the story of the Egyptian worker told by Minister Qudah to the Finance Committee. Some websites discovered that the minister"s story was false when they contacted the worker.

Ziyoud pointed out that media outlets have a hard time because government officials do not provide them with information directly; they provide it to MPs directly. When ministers are asked about specific information at the end of committee sessions, many of them do not answer and refer the questions to MPs.

The AKEED Monitor has observed that a large part of the discrepancy and inaccuracy of information is due to the inaccurate, and sometimes completely untrue, statements by ministers. This reflects reluctance to manage government subsidy to eligible persons instead of subsidizing goods and the inability to promote it in the manner the government wants in the media.

The AKEED Monitor thinks that government confusion in providing information to media outlets, MPs, and citizens does not exempt media outlets from their own mistakes as they have to seek accuracy in reporting news, specifically concerning issues that directly appeal to citizens" emotions.

The Monitor thinks that media outlets are responsible for a significant part of the mistakes that are made; this has nothing to do with the ministers. This conduct contradicts the standard of accuracy, which stresses commitment to credibility when publishing. Besides, many outlets are not good at handling news that contains a lot of figures and statistics. This should be noted in order to avoid similar mistakes in the future.