Oct 01 2002

Good Governance and Arab Journalists’ Unions*

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Media Activism

Ever since I started working as a journalist, I have been a member of the Palestinian Journalist’s Union. For us in Palestine during the early 1980s when I began my journalism career, the idea of professional unions was considered part of the struggle. It was considered by many as part of the nation building efforts and a clear act of protest against the Israeli occupation, which was denying Palestinians the basic right to self-determination.

But it didn’t take long for me to realize that if unions were limited to such a political act, they will have little opportunity to succeed if the unions didn’t concentrate on what they are made for, namely to serve the members. The politicization of our union meant that politicians and not the members determined the policy of the union.

Elections were conducted on highly political grounds. Administrative committees were almost always handpicked by the political powers to be and the loyalty of the union’s leadership was clearly towards those who appointed them. Naturally the political powers subsidized the unions with these political groups almost always paying the dues in mass of the members that were close to them, thus ensuring that they will vote for the members handpicked by the political powers. This to me was as clear case as one can make of politicians buying elections in order to ensure loyalty of those in the leadership positions.

After having an opportunity to look outside of Palestine, I realized that this case of politicizing the journalist’s union is clearly a pan Arab phenomena and is not restricted to Palestine. I have since discovered that Intelligence services, and governing parties take a major role in the make up of the various journalist’s unions in most Arab countries. Of course this goes back to one of the main problems in the Arab media which is the absence of separation between news and opinions. Most Arab journalists are usually labeled with a political label even if they are supposed to be writing news and features and not columnists.

Of course the effort of national governments to control the journalists unions comes initially from their effort to control the journalists themselves. This effort is made that much easier by the fact that governmental control of the press, whether direct (in case of full or partial ownership) or indirect (in the case of pressing publishers to appoint editors who the government approves). Thus in the Arab world most journalists are often representatives of governments and parties rather than reflecting what the public wants. Journalists are supposed to be watchdogs on governments and not spokespersons of governments or ruling parties.

The politicization of the journalists’ unions has a direct and immediate effect on the make up of the unions. Politically motivated policies determine who are the members of journalist’s unions.

The obvious answer is: journalists. But is this the case in most Arab Journalist’s Unions today?

In most Arab countries unions include publishers, editors-in-chief and sometimes non journalistic staff and technicians. In some countries members of state-run wire services and government owned and run radio and TV stations are members thus tilting the unions in favor of persons who are paid by the state and thus can hardly act independently and in favor of the needs and of individual journalists.

The interest of journalists are handicapped by the fact that their employers- publishers and editors- are often the heads of the national unions. How could an employer or a representative of an employer act in good faith in defending the rights and interests of journalists who they are also supposed to defend as fellow union members??

Let us make a short survey of head of journalists unions in the region to better understand what I am saying. The last three heads of the Palestinian journalists union have been loyal party members with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Akram Haniyeh (is a senior advisor to Arafat) Radwan Abu Ayyash (heads the government owned and run Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation) Naim Tobasi (loyal Arafat man who single handedly changed the bylaws to allow himself to run for a third term in violation of the by laws.

In Jordan the former head of the union Seef Sharif was the manager of the second largest daily newspaper. He was the person who paid the same journalists who he was expected to defend if they had problems with their employers.

In Egypt, the head of the union is non other than the editor of the government daily Al Ahrahm Ibrahim Nafe’. In Iraq the head of the union is non other than ‘Udi Saddam Hussein, the powerful son of the Iraqi president.

With existing national unions stacked with pro government journalists and publishers and editors, the obvious remedy to such a problem would be the creation of alternative unions. But here again independent journalist runs into a brick wall of legislative roadblocks.

With a few exceptions, journalists in the Arab countries are forbidden to create their own alternative union. Most Arab national laws state that a citizen is considered a journalist only if he or she are members of the countries only union. Any person working as a journalist without being a member of the union is considered an imposter if they are not members of the country’s single union. Furthermore, newspapers will not be licensed to operate if the chosen editor in chief is not a member of the union. This policy is a clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in article 21 that all persons have the right to choose the membership in any organization they choose and that it is forbidden by governments to impose membership in any professional organization if they choose not to join.

If a person practicing journalism must be a member of the national union and if the national unions are so biased in favor of ruling governments and parties, who will defend the average journalist when they get in trouble with their employer or more dangerously with the government. Who will speak out when a journalist is taken advantage of, arbitrarily fired or harassed and imprisoned because of their professional work? Furthermore who will lobby against oppressive media laws? Who will push for legislative media reform? Who will provide international media defenders with basic information about abuse against journalists?

Journalist Unions have also been unable to deal with the sudden increase in the number of individuals working in the journalistic field by means of the various new medias. Persons working with electronic media, Internet journalism and satellite transmissions are for the most part not included in existing unions and are not allowed to create their own specialized unions. Most Arab governments have done little to break up the existing journalistic union monopolies. But in Jordan the prime minister has recently told members of the Jordan Press Association that exclusivity for professional unions might not be constitutional.

Local citizens working for Arab or international media companies are also not represented properly. There have been many cases (especially in Palestine) of international media organizations abdicating their responsibilities towards these journalists once they are injured harassed and their press credentials rescinded.

The only obvious way for independent journalists to find a solution to their predicament is to create non-governmental organizations that can specialize in the defense of journalists.

Again in this situation we have seen that an orchestrated campaign is whipped into shape to discredit such individuals and organizations leading to fighting them with the aim of declaring them illegal. This in addition to an active character assassination campaign against such activists led by no other than the heads of the unions themselves. This is very ironic. Members of journalists unions who are expected to defend fellow journalists, waste their time and effort in order to discredit local NGOs who are doing exactly the job that the union is doing.

The case of Nedal Mansour and his center for the defense and protection of the journalists is an obvious case of members of the journalists union abusing their positions and acting in a manner that is completely contrary to the interests of journalists and to the goals that their union is supposed to stand for. By firing their own colleague and banning him from declaring himself as a journalist forever, the Jordan Press Association has committed a crime against their own profession and sent a very negative message to everyone who is thinking of putting effort to defending journalists. This at a time that the Jordan Press Association has more than one million Jordanian Dinars in their treasury and they have done almost nothing in the areas of training or defending Jordanian journalists.

Some of the above mentioned problems in Arab Journalist’s syndicates are a reflection on a bigger problem with regards to Arab media and its genuine freedom of expression. What is needed is a change in attitudes in order to bring about a culture that respects basic freedoms and encourages professionalism

But as far as specific ideas as to what Arab Journalists Union need to do in order to apply good government policies, below are some suggestions:

1. Unions must declare and practice their independence from governments or any other group. Their allegiance must be totally towards their members.

2. Membership in unions must be voluntary.

3. The defense and welfare of the members must be the predominant interest of journalists’ unions.

4. Journalist unions mustn’t include owners or individuals whose work puts them in a position of superiority to journalists.

5. Journalists should have the freedom to create alternative or specialized unions.

6. Journalist’s Unions must network with Arab and international unions with the aim of the aim of learning from international practices and experiences.

7. Journalist’s Unions should increase their relations with international NGOs who work with the defense of journalists. Relations with organizations like Journalists Without Borders, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch as well as local and Arab organizations should be increased.

8. Cooperation with UNESCO, especially with the unit for freedom of expression, must be intensified in order for journalist’s unions to understand and apply international standards in this area.

9. Journalists unions should help create voluntary mechanisms that can ensure that journalists adhere to the ethics of independent journalism.

10. In order to preserve the independence Journalist’s Union must declare publicly all their direct and indirect relationships with national governments and must work at del-inking themselves from national security apparatuses.

* This paper was presented at the UNESCO conference on Good Governance and Arab Media held in Amman in September 2002.

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