Fearmongering, crisis mentality and Jordanians’ right to downtime

Ruba Saqr
Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency. (Photo: Jordan News)
Now that the war on terrorism – in which Jordan has been a key ally for around two decades – has become markedly less extreme, the local media are overhyping a new kind of threat: the war on drug trafficking.اضافة اعلان

There is hardly any similarity between the level of threat and nerve-wrecking intensity that defines terrorist attacks and the efforts to thwart drug-smuggling attempts.

But there seems to be a concerted (yet organic) effort to make the latter seem like a continuation of a long line of existential threats coming at us from the great unknown.

As a disclaimer, this by no means diminishes the many sacrifices of the security forces protecting our borders, or the real challenges emanating from the lax security situation in Syria. Having said that, the argument here is about protecting civilian life from constant panic, with an eye toward helping Jordanian citizens move from a “survival mode” to a more relaxed and productivity-centric “prosperity mindset”.

Sadly, though, Jordanians have got addicted to crisis to the point of losing their inner compass. As a nation, it seems we have developed some kind of communal post-traumatic stress disorder that is making us anxious at the slightest trigger. At this point, we might be in need of psychological help on a mass level.

With all the paradigm shifts sweeping the country over the past few months, the emphasis now needs to be on the nation’s (especially the youth’s) self-confidence, hope, and determination to build a better future – without the mentality of fearmongering pulling us back.

Public officials, security spokespeople, and the media need to stop pushing security concerns onto the center stage. The aim here is to allow for a more hopeful and uplifting discourse to take shape, so as to inspire positivity and creativity among our demoralized youth and society at large.

People cannot be asked to look up and aspire to higher when they are targeted by and their psyche is bombarded daily with messages of fear, panic, and anxiety.

The message that we are being “targeted” as a nation is not a healthy one to amplify or brood on. It has turned us into crisis-prone individuals with the kind of thinking that breeds a sense of social isolation and depression, a fertile ground for alarmist views, conspiracy theories, and susceptibility to disinformation and propaganda.

Many say the pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health of Jordanians, but mental and psychological fatigue has long been in the making. We have been surviving blow after blow for decades now. Our mental resilience has been stretched thin by the Desert Storm (aka the Gulf War) in the 1990s, the war on terrorism in 2001 and beyond, and the Syrian refugee crisis that has been with us for a little over a decade now.

The unceasing oppression of the Palestinians west of the Jordan River – with horrific sights of bloodshed, injustice, and criminal killings at point-blank, targeting unarmed Arab civilians on their way to a wedding or a normal life event – is another reason many Jordanian youths are unable to nurture a calm mindset.

On top of that, the National Center for Mental Health has recently said that 2,000 mental health visits were recorded last year, a small figure per capita, but in a society where a “culture of shame” surrounds mental illness issues, it is difficult to quantify the real number of Jordanian men, women and children suffering from constant feelings of gloom and demoralization, with diminished mental resilience and an inability to cope with additional stressors.

A comparison to other world nations will show how the number of stressors an average Jordanian has to deal with on a yearly basis (and decade to decade) is above the global average, especially when one adds to the mix the trust gap between government and citizen, the worsening economic situation, and the rising unemployment levels.

Jordanians have had no real breather. Decades of regional upheaval have left us with persistent feelings of exhaustion and fatigue, stretching us beyond our ability to keep a positive attitude. No group of people can ever sustain long stretches of constant strain without coming to their breaking point.

Although newspapers like Al Ghad News and Jordan News have been paying special attention to positive, uplifting news in their lifestyle sections, the fact remains that most media outlets (both print and online) continue to carry negative, panicky news in their regular local sections.

Interestingly, news about cracking down on drug smuggling has been a recurring feature in Jordanian media for a number of years. Any quick search will yield a large catalog of results from 2015 and other years, documenting a good number of foiled drug-smuggling attempts across the borders. For over six years now, such news has been seen as auxiliary to more pressing (and threatening) news, like terrorism and regional unrest.

What is different today is the new media approach, which has been framing the war against drugs as the newest existential threat facing Jordan, as if in a bid to fill a void, allowing us no downtime.

As a result, the war on drug trafficking has now taken the front row, with misleading language and tone suggesting that it had the same severity as earlier threats, which is categorically untrue.

Against this backdrop, the public sector’s non-existent communication skills are an indication that the government has no real media strategy when it comes to major national announcements, giving ample leeway to the local media to steer the ship in the direction they want, i.e., an exaggerated sense of crisis.

With support from UNDP, the Jordan Media Institute last month launched a training program for government spokespersons, in the aftermath of the unthinkable communication flop linked to the “energy-for-water” announcement late last year. Many said the disconnect between members of the Cabinet (with State Minister for Media Affairs and Communication Faisal Al-Shboul seemingly having little information about the trilateral deal) was indicative of the public sector’s poor PR and communication capacity.

Once it has corrected course, the government needs to put forth a fact-based media strategy that aims to boost the morale of Jordanians. The public sector also needs to strengthen inter-agency communication among Cabinet members, government departments, security agencies, and all other concerned parties, to come up with consistent messaging to address issues of national importance.

Worryingly, what we are discussing here is “communication 101”, known to any beginner in the PR world. Yet, here we are, with a government grappling to build its communication capabilities from scratch, as if Jordan were born yesterday.

In any case, assuming that the government manages to sort out its communication weaknesses, let us remember the core message: Jordanians need to thrive, not just survive.

The writer has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.

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