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Child rights bill and the rabbit hole of information - By RUBA SAQR, Jordan News

 

 

 Chasing after information to trace the legislative journey of the child rights bill has not been easy. Spending endless hours, online and on the phone, just to unearth the changes that have been made to the bill (throughout the different stages of the legislative process) is a reminder that both Parliament and the government have a serious communication problem that needs tackling.


For the past few months, understanding the reasons behind the bill’s metamorphosis from a great piece of legislation to a second-rate law that left out some of the best articles included in its first version meant going down the rabbit hole of information. 

The bill’s first draft (for the year 2020) was authored by a technical committee comprising 14 institutions, including the National Council for Family Affairs; the ministries of education, health and justice; the Public Security Directorate; UNICEF; the Jordan River Foundation, and the National Center for Human Rights.

But their version, which was well-written and to a great extent catering to the best interests of children, was not the one presented to Parliament by the Cabinet.

The first obstacle to information gathering came from the Legislation and Opinion Bureau’s website, which posted the 2020 version of the bill, but not the updated 2022 copy that the Cabinet had truncated and approved before referring it to the Lower House. Finding the Cabinet’s version of the child rights bill took a long time and multiple phone calls before a local reporter graciously sent it over.

Then came other failed attempts to find the final amendments adopted recently by a joint parliamentary committee tasked with “fixing” the bill, in light of a fierce misinformation and disinformation campaign that claimed the draft law was entertaining destructive articles that, incidentally, were not even part of it (such as allowing children to change their religion).

News reports were unclear on whether the joint committee, comprising 22 MPs from the “legal” and the “women and family affairs” committees, has taken on board the Iftaa’ Council’s recommendation to substitute the term “parents” with “the legal guardian” in Article 15 of the bill, prompting women rights activists to describe the proposal as a patriarchal attempt to give women and mothers the backseat in the hierarchy of the nuclear family.

On Monday, Parliament passed the bill after striking out at least one article previously approved (and probably drafted) by the joint parliamentary committee.

Seeing how recent news reports have left many questions unanswered in this regard, I made another phone call to ask a communications officer working for an institution with access to the Lower House to share the MPs’ amendments before they got presented to the Senate.

At that precise moment, though, it became clear that Jordan has a massive communication problem that prevents Jordanians from accessing the walled mazes of public information. No wonder disinformation was rampant on social media; facts were not easily available to counter the rumor mill.

For the country’s future “program-based” political parties to succeed, information is the bedrock on which everything else will be built, because socio-political attitudes and election campaigns cannot be created without a foundation of facts.

Ironically, recent governmental messaging has been about increasing the participation of women and youth in political life. But to achieve this, these information roadblocks need to be removed.

Looking back at two months of information chasing, it is highly doubtful that European citizens had to jump through similar hoops to get basic data about their parliaments’ deliberations. Information-sharing is a basic piece of the political puzzle; how come it keeps on eluding us here in Jordan?

Our Parliament has countless Memorandum of understanding's with peer parliaments all over the world to exchange experience and improve its professional conduct, yet its two main official websites do not have a basic information center detailing the journey of each bill as it moves through the corridors of the Lower House and Senate.

Even the simplest of information is presented in a convoluted manner. At the moment, the House of Representative’s site is hard to navigate and uses an old theme with obsolete features. For example, users have to click on 10 numbered links to get the full list of Parliament’s 130 MPs, where it should be a single scrollable page containing all the names.

That is why legislative reformists and political theorists must face up to the fact that without easily accessible and well-structured information, Jordan will go nowhere in its stab at political reform.

Access to information is where it all starts. For the country’s future “program-based” political parties to succeed, information is the bedrock on which everything else will be built, because socio-political attitudes and election campaigns cannot be created without a foundation of facts.

The “political programs” Jordan wants its newly-formed political parties to come up with hinges on information. It is not enough to pass a progressive law that protects political parties from legal prosecution; information, too, has to be easily obtainable and essentially user-friendly.

Without basic facts, laid out by experienced communications professionals working for all three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial), political parties will end up resorting to propaganda and conspiracy theories to gain public support. The political spin-doctoring and populist grandstanding that has targeted the child rights bill in recent months is a case in point.

For that reason, Jordan’s information sector, in its entirety, is in need of a complete overhaul. Keeping citizens in the dark will only push them to conspiracy theories and hearsay to understand the world they live in.

It will be hard to achieve real reform, political or otherwise, if information remains obscure and difficult to obtain. Now is the time to introduce a new informational infrastructure that enables future politicians and their electors to form attitudes and opinions based on solid facts.


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.

 

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