Bread Subsidy…Waves of Confusion Sweeping Across Media, Governments


AKEED, Ahmad Abu Khalil

When we do our reports for the AKEED Monitor, we usually seek the help of the archive provided by Google, the most famous search engine on the Internet. We write key words in the search field and we get a lot of what is published and what is saved by the memory of the electronic search engine.

You can write words in the search field, such as khubz (bread), al urdun (Jordan), da"am (subsidy), khat ahmar (red line), la masas (will not be touched), qoot al muwatin (citizen"s livelihood), or any other words that are now commonly used in the media, whether it supports or opposes the position of the government. You will find that the question of bread (its price, subsidy, and cost) has been open in the local media in the form of waves for more than 10 years. It is the period in which Google started doing comprehensive documentation. If you search in the archive over the past two decades, you will reach the same conclusion.

The available material is huge and has different content. However, it creates more confusion than clarity. Of course, we do not mean here finding items that adopt a specific position (for or against) toward this disputed issue. Our observation has to do with the absence of the traditional role of the media in delivering information and enabling the receiver to understand the phenomenon to help him to adopt a position. Most published items do not have this aspect, especially if a reader wants to delve into the subject.

A few days ago, a 750-word report published by a local website monitored what it termed government confusion vis-à-vis bread subsidy. The report tracked some of the items that were published over the past few years.  

As a matter of fact, bread subsidy as a major media topic goes back a little more than two decades when the government of Abdul Karim Kabariti (1996) indeed approved lifting bread subsidy. At the time, the media was present as a visible instrument of struggle amid the emergence of the phenomenon of "weeklies"--the weekly newspapers as an expression of what was then termed "independent media." These newspapers turned that issue into major headlines, especially in the wake of the eruption of public protests against the decision to lift subsidy (which raised prices from 8 to 25 piasters per kg). The decision was taken and applied for two years.

A decision by the government of Abdul Salam Majali (1998), which followed Kabariti"s government, reinstated bread subsidy. Consequently, the price dropped to 16 piasters per kg. Some press reports still say that this decision was "puzzling."

Afterward, the issue has reemerged in waves, most prominently in 2008, which coincided with what was then known as the global food crisis. However, what the government did then was only to change the mechanisms of distribution and pricing of subsidized flour. The subject came up again strongly in 2011 and then in 2013 and 2015. Other headlines, containing some new words, started to appear in the media. These include the following: Who Benefits From Subsidy? How Do We Direct Subsidy to Those Who Deserve It? How Can Waste and Smuggling Stop?

In all the waves, the media has presented confusing material. It depicted the decisions to maintain subsidy as reflecting concern about the livelihood of citizens, having earlier portrayed them as economic distortions.

The expression "bread is a red line," uttered by many officials, caught on and was published in numerous press items. At a later time, other items were published, mocking, denying, and making fun of the notion of a red line.

The media has repeatedly hailed statements by officials, in which they said that the price of bread would not be touched. In early October 2017, the media published a statement by Prime Minister Hani Mulki headlined: "Bread Prices Not To Be Touched."

However, in recent days, there have been more reports defending developments in the official position. Some major media outlets made an effort, using different press formats, including "infographic" as the latest method of explanation by graphs. News websites took part in the campaign by providing details in figures, percentages, and statistics that justify and defend the anticipated decision to lift subsidy.

For the purposes of preparing this report, we could not find recently published material that is sufficiently detailed to understand this question. However, at least one website republished a feature that was published by Al Dustour newspaper at the end of last year. It contained some details on the so-called trio benefiting from subsidy. The website did well to mention the actual date of original publishing and its source.  

Several years ago, a news website published an item, providing a detailed opinion by a former official in the sector of flour industry. Other websites republished this item, depicting it as new, under sensational headlines "How Does Government Make Millions Out of Subsidized Bread? Shocking Figures!" The item included criticism and refutation of the official position and figures.

In the ongoing debate, we have located an item, which is perhaps the most comprehensive and most accurate. It is a relatively long study (3500 words) by a Spanish researcher who is specialized in subsidy issues. It is headlined "Shedding Light on Policies of Bread Subsidy in Jordan." Al Ghad newspaper translated it in June 2014. The study provides details that were not published locally.