The Curious Case of the Ajloun Gold Find

The farcical events surrounding an alleged treasure find highlighted some sad truths about the dysfunctional relationship between the government, media, and general public.

 By Osama Al Sharif

Public opinion in Jordan, like in many other countries, has long been susceptible to state management through mass media. But with the dwindling influence of official newspapers and broadcasters, the government’s ability to control general sentiment has loosened. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in September’s odd case of an alleged treasure find in Ajloun.

Public works at a private estate in the area created national suspicion because it was carried out in absolute secrecy and under strict security measures. The owner of the estate, called Khirbet Herakla, or Herakles Ruins, claimed the government had excavated his land without his permission and dug out truckloads of ancient gold artifacts.

Word of the alleged find spread like wild fire, and soon even the most sober-minded news sites reported that something was amiss in Ajloun and that the gold story carried some weight. Other websites claimed that the government had found the location of a fabled Roman treasure and that fueled public interest. The story of the alleged Ajloun treasure trove also went viral on social media. The government, which refused to comment initially, had to act.

At first, a government minister claimed the works were being carried out to deal with dangerous land erosion. But that explanation was altered repeatedly by other ministers, and even by Prime Minister Ensour himself. They denied the gold story and said the army had in fact been installing pumps, boosters, and warning devices. For days Jordanians were debating different scenarios. The websites added fuel to fire by publishing what they claimed were actual photographs of the treasure. The owner of the estate and residents of the governorate rejected the official version and threatened to conduct their own digs. Soon, Lower House deputies joined the fray and called on the government to disclose facts. Public opinion had shifted from the war on the Islamic State (IS) and Jordan’s role in the international coalition to the saga of the Ajloun gold.

The government had lost control of public opinion, and in the process the trust of the majority of Jordanians had vanished. Its attempts to come up with a plausible explanation for the Ajloun dig had failed. The truth was finally revealed at a press conference held by Ensour and, in a rare media appearance, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mashal al Zaben. Apparently the digs were carried out by the army’s special corps to extract and defuse booby-trapped spying devices that were planted by Israel in 1969. This was the biggest espionage operation carried out by Israel against the Jordanian armed forces. The army chief provided pictures and a chronology of facts surrounding the Ajloun dig. The treasure story was finally put to rest.

Why the government took its time to cough up the truth will never be known. Certainly, army operations are considered state secrets, but the way the government mismanaged public opinion allowing rumors to circulate for such a long time is a sign that transparency and openness are indispensable in today’s wired world.

There are many lessons to be learned from this whole sorry episode. Among them is that news sites can and will act irresponsibly despite all the talk of adhering to journalistic ethics. In addition, the prevalence of social media has become a potent weapon in the hands of empowered citizens who will not shy away from expressing opinions and making judgments. The traditional ways of managing public opinion, by issuing statements and relying on newspapers and government run radio and television stations, simply don’t work anymore.

The cost to the government’s reputation has been high. It lost the confidence of the general public and allowed rumors and hearsay to dominate for days. Furthermore, it showed that even ministers lack pertinent information and will deliver statements that turn out to be false. In established democracies, internal investigations would have been launched to pinpoint procedural errors and establish culpability.

On the other hand, the fact that many news sites deliberately misled the public and published erroneous reports and pictures claiming they were facts shouldn’t pass without a reaction from regulating bodies. Online news providers are subject to the same ethical and professional guidelines as print, radio, and TV. Somehow these guidelines were violated. It’s unfortunate that the Jordan Press Association and web news associations had failed to act on this and introduce measures to make sure that this sort of sensationalism and misdirection of the public will not happen again.

It remains to be seen if the government and news websites will change their ways to prevent something similar happening again in the future. In the end, as comical as the incident seemed at the time, the short-lived gold fever that struck the Jordanian public is no laughing matter.