Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Big Week for People Overstating Their Opinions... Environment and Refugees Under Fire?

This week, there have been two major snafus where officials in position of authority have made remarks that were unwisely chosen. Seeing this second example has promoted me to comment on both. I'll start with the one I saw today. The Jordan Times reported today that Andrew Whitley, the head of the New York UNRWA office, indicated that Palestinian refugees should give up on a right of return and the Arab countries should find places for them.

For anyone who is reading this blog and is not overly familiar with the region, I feel an explanation is appropriate here. UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, from their website:

UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) provides assistance, protection and advocacy for some 4.7 million registered Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory, pending a solution to their plight.

UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN member states.

Before moving to Jordan, I had no idea that the UN had an agency dedicated specifically to Palestinian Refugees. To further illustrate, Jordan is currently served by both UNRWA and the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees, the UN Refugee Agency). The UNRWA deals with Palestinians registered with the UN as refugees. These are people who typically live in one of the acknowledged refugee camps, I believe there are 15. I blogged at Christmas time about my visit to one of the camps. It was a sobering experience. The UNHCR covers the Iraqi Refugees in Jordan.

However, let's be clear. To be a refugee served by the UNRWA, you must meet specific criteria. As an example, El 3atal and his family have no relationship with UNRWA for all that they are refugees. Those Palestinians who came to Jordan and received citizenship cease falling under the auspices of direct support for the UNRWA, from what I understand. So, this agency is specifically for the Palestinians. You may recall I posted about the Baqa'a refugee camp near Amman and the impact it had on me on my very first trip to Jordan. Seeing the homes and shops with corrugated tin roofs held on by cinder block as a visceral reminder that they are only here temporarily and waiting to return home remains with me.

For an official of UNRWA to say that the Palestinians need to give up on their ability to ever go home is to say that organization has no purpose, to my way of thinking. After all, the organization was created to provide services and advocacy for Palestinian refugees until their situation is resolved in accordance with international law. Did I miss where that has happened? Somehow I don't think so.

The UNRWA was quick to say that these express Mr. Whitley's views, not those of the UNRWA. Frankly, if he didn't lose his job for saying something like this out of turn, he should have. I take the same very dim view of this as the recent brouhaha over the (former) Minister of the Environment's resignation after poorly conceived remarks. As a representative of your organization, you provide a public face. It appears that, like the Jordanian government, UNRWA needs to provide media training for its Directors. When you are speaking at a meeting of the National Council for U.S.-Arab Relations in your role as NY Director of the UNRWA, you don't get to have an opinion. If you do have an opinion, you keep it to yourself.

I mentioned Mr. Malhas' poorly conceived (and timed) remarks as it is the second instance where someone who should have kept his mouth shut offered an opinion when he shouldn't have one. Somehow the message was not clear to Mr. Malhas that, when opening a workshop for journalists organized by international environmental bodies, it was be ill-advised to trash talk the media in general and specific reporters. Again, he was not there as Mr. Malhas private citizen with an opinion on the environment. He was in attendance as a representative of Jordan's government. He was there as the face for the environment of Samir Rifai's government. In effect, he was there representing His Majesty, King Abdullah. I can't quite imagine what, in that role, made him think that his personal opinions of the qualifications, skill, and motivation-levels of journalists should be open game. While his remarks that Jordanian journalists lack fact-checking skills and are unmotivated to do a great job may be true, it was the wrong time, place, and person to approach the subject. I have many personal opinions on the state of journalism in Jordan. As a private citizen, I not only can hold these opinions, but can espouse them loudly as much as I like. However, the moment I transition from representing only myself, I give up those rights...

These two cases clearly demonstrate to me that media training is sorely needed by everyone who is likely to find themselves in the spotlight, no matter how small that spotlight may be. When representing others, you must carefully consider your remarks and think long and hard before making statements that may be poorly received. It's not longer just you that you are affecting...

Happy Feet (in Mouth)!


At 8:16 AM , Anonymous Ehab said...

Well said.

But regarding Mr. Malhas story, I still think he is entitled to criticize the media, as he is not a representative of said media, unlike Mr. Whitley, who proceeded to undermine his own position as head of UNRWA, and he might as well resign after such a statement.

Of course, the way Mr. Malhas did it (calling reporters donkeys) was absolutely wrong, but I think he gets to express an opinion on such matters.

At 10:35 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Ehab, thanks for your comment. However, once you become a Minister, you no longer have an opinion other than that provided for you. As a representative of the government, you should not say something in an open, public forum that does not meet with the government's views. For me, the issue was not about his calling someone a donkey (which is clearly inappropriate). It was about the fact that he spoke out of turn. And, after rereading the Jordan Times article it appears this "criticism" of the media took place during his opening of the conference.

I would hope that the next Minister will have enough sense to use such forums as an opportunity to build bridges to achieve a partnership in sustainability (the intent of the forum) rather than openly alienating those with whom he should be building said partnership. So, again, this is not Mr. Malhas speaking as Mr. Malhas. This was Mr. Malhas speaking as the Minister representing Jordan...

Oh, and I hope Mr. Whitley was booted the second those words came out of his mouth...

At 2:47 PM , Anonymous Ehab said...

You are welcome. :)

I see your point, but I believe Mr. Malhas is not wrong in pointing out errors of the media, especially fact-checking errors regarding issues that should be important to him considering he is after all the minister of environmental affairs. So in my mind, he should point out those errors, more in the form of fact rather than opinion.

Of course I agree it was totally inappropriate, and the setting was totally wrong. Maybe a report to the media about the current state of affairs (rather than public insult) is a better way to do it.

At 11:32 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Ah, Ehab, we agree totally. In another forum and in the terms of, Jordanian media outlets need to improve their attention to detail and fact-checking would be fine. Constructive feedback constructs and builds relationships. Hurling insults and beating people down destroys relationships.

I actually think that the concerns that you mention should be addressed through the journalism association. After all, that should be their role. They should be offering workshops and building skills, right? Thanks for clarifying and we definitely agree.


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