Public Opinion Pushes Government To Cancel Exemptions for Senior Staff

AKEED, Anwar Ziadat

The publishing by media outlets and social media websites of a leaked document on a government decision to exempt civil servants from paying back any amounts of money they had received before 1 April 2018 has prompted the government to reverse its decision. This shows that the media plays a role in correcting government decisions to serve the general good.

On 14 May 2018, the Cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Hani Mulki, decided to withdraw and nullify its previous decision on "exempting all civil servants, including high-grade staff, from paying back any amounts that were received before 1 April 2018 in the form of bonuses or allowances in excess of the amounts allowable in accordance with the provisions of Article 19/C of Civil Service Regulation No. 82 of 2018."

Most websites reported on the decision, using similar headlines, including "Government Reverses Exemption for Senior Staff of Amounts Received," "Cabinet Cancels Sarayreh's Decision To Exempt Officials of Paying Back Allowances," and "Decision on Exempting Staff of Amounts Received Before 1 April Canceled."

This issue received great attention after news websites published a document that contains the text of the first decision stipulating the exemption of staff. The media largely reported on it through news and short reports. The story also provided ample stuff for social media users.

On 6 May, local websites reported on the story by publishing a report headlined "Government Exempts Senior Staff From Returning Funds They Received." The report included a document that had the logo of the news website. The story said that "the government did not specify the amounts in full for all staff throughout past years." It indicated that the exemption "covered staff from all ministries and government institutions, including the Ministry of Planning, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Social Security Corporation, Ministry of Interior, and Civil Status to varying degrees. Those people have to pay back money to the public treasury because it had been disbursed to them unlawfully for years in the form of bonuses, per diem, travel allowance, participation allowance, and others."

Afterward, the story was published with the same details on 8 May under the headline "Document: Treasury Bleeding While Jordanian Government Exempts Senior Staff From Amounts of Money" on the website of a London-based newspaper. Local websites picked up the story as is.

Another website ran the story on the same day under the headline "Government Exempts Officials From Millions of Dinars…Imposes Taxes on Destitutes." The website noted that the source of the story was a document released by former MP Dr. Ahmad Shaqran on his Facebook page, in reference to the document of exemption issued by the government.

Other headlines on the story ran as follows: "Financial Exemptions for High-Grade Staff," "Mulki Grants Financial Exemptions to High-Grade Staff," "Has Government Exempted Senior Staff From Returning 600,000 Dinars?" "Our Esteemed Government: Take What Is in Our Pockets, But Do Not Treat Us Like Fools!" and "Sources: Former, Current Officials Exempted From Paying Back Bonuses, Allowances."

Media outlets also followed the story by republishing a government clarification. The headlines included the following: "Government Justifies Exemption of High-Grade Staff" and "Sarayreh: Bonus Exemption for Staff, Pensioners Who Could Not Pay."

Some news websites followed the story from another angle by talking about a disagreement within the Cabinet. These headlines included the following: "Who Leaked Sensitive Document Signed by Sarayreh?" This story basically reported what was published by the London-based Rai Al Youm newspaper under the headline "Jordanian Cabinet: Growing Accusations Between Mulki's Two Deputies. Key Question: Who Leaked Sensitive Document Signed by Sarayreh?"

The Jordanian Media Credibility Monitor (AKEED) asked a number of specialists about how the media handled this issue, the role of public opinion, and the impact of the leaking of the document on the government and its reversal of the exemption decision.

MP Nabil Gheishan told AKEED that the leaking of the document is what made the government go back on its decision. The document showed the contradiction in government decisions. While it is seeking to impose new taxes, the government grants exemptions to senior civil servants. He pointed out that it has become a public opinion case. People started blaming the government, which raises taxes on the poor while it exempts senior officials. This necessitated taking the new decision.

Gheishan adds: "This is not the first time in which the government takes wrong decisions. Last year, the government deducted 10% of any salary that exceeds 2,000 dinars for all civil servants. It reversed the decision last March."

Osamah Rantisi, chief editor of Al Awal News website, told AKEED that the government decision was taken after it took note of the mistake it made. Its reversal of the decision is "closer to a bribe of public opinion, especially since it is in the process of approving new tax laws that affect the majority of citizens."

He added that "reversing the decision happened without real pressure by public opinion. There was no pressuring public opinion to dissuade the government from its decision. The issue was not largely reported by the media or even social media."

Dr. Jamal Shalabi, professor of political science, said that "the leaking was not innocent. There is struggle between wings within the government. The decision was signed by Engineer Jamal Sarayreh, deputy prime minister and minister of state for Prime Ministry affairs." He added that "leaking the document embarrassed the government. While it is asking citizens to tighten their belts, it is exempting influential people and senior civil servants." He noted that keeping the decision would have provided ammunition to the public in the future when new decisions are made. Thus, the safest option was to withdraw the decision and put things back on track.

He told AKEED that "reversing the decision was not done voluntarily by the government; it was a response to public opinion, created by media outlets and social media."

One observation concerning media performance here is that reports differed over the real amount of the exemption. Some websites mentioned the sum 600,000 dinars, while others said that the amount totaled 582,000 dinars. Other websites estimated the amount at 300,000 dinars. Some reports said that those who benefited from the exemption were two people, while other reports said that the exemption involved 16 people.

Some media outlets tried to claim credit for publishing the scoop. AKEED established that the first instance of publishing was on 6 May. Then, websites started reporting on the story. Some news websites attributed the scoop to a former MP on his personal page on social media.

External websites and media outlets are still an important source for local news websites, even if the story is local in nature. This is a negative indicator, showing that local media sometimes fails to follow important local issues. Meanwhile, opinions overlapped with news in some instances while covering this story.