x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Government to designate media spokesmen

Government ministries will, for the first time, have a team of dedicated spokesmen to respond to reporters' inquiries.

ABU DHABI // Government ministries will for the first time have a team of dedicated spokesmen to respond to reporters' inquiries. Aiming to improve transparency and communication between federal agencies and the media and public, the Secretary General of the Cabinet, Najla al Awar, introduced the Federal Government Spokesperson System at a meeting yesterday with the heads of local news organisations. Certain government officials, she said, have now been appointed as "the only individuals who are authorised to release statements to the media on behalf of the federal Government".

These people would be "the only sources of information according to their roles and responsibilities", she said. "Information collected through others at the governmental bodies shall not be considered as valid and authorised information." The Government has said it expects the plan to streamline communications and help news organisations get the answers they seek. There is no central communications office for the Federal Government. Official announcements or statements are often issued through press releases, which do not allow for follow-up questions or more detailed information beyond the release. Journalists often need to clarify information at short notice.

Under the new arrangement, a chief spokesman will field reporters' questions on federal issues for one or more executives within the ministry. For instance, the Ministry of Health's head of strategy, Dr Salem al Darmaki, might refer journalists to a spokesman who would also speak on behalf of the executive director of medical practice and licensing, Dr Amin al Amiri. Mohammed Yousef, who heads the UAE Journalists Association, said the new system, in theory, would be an improvement. Since journalists would now have access to someone specifically designated to help clarify points of confusion, he said, accuracy ought to be improved. But it was too soon to know, he said, just how easily information would obtained from the Government.

"I think the idea for this system is very good, but we need more," he said. "I think it's better than nothing." Mr Yousef acknowledged that the Government had become more engaged with the media in recent years and called the hiring of public relations companies by certain departments a step forward. But he lamented that requests for information were handled too slowly and often too late for publication.

Under the new system, ministers themselves may continue to speak about "strategic matters of their respective ministries", according to WAM, the state news agency. The new official spokesmen must first obtain authorisation from the ministers and approval by the Cabinet to speak on behalf of their federal organisations. The Government Communications Office falls under the Ministry of Cabinet Affairs.

mkwong@thenational.ae