Journalists' Union Accused of Failing the Profession

Media workers say that their representative body is used to control and restrict them.

Journalists' Union Accused of Failing the Profession

Media workers say that their representative body is used to control and restrict them.

Friday, 29 May, 2009
Journalist Maya Jamous fell foul of the Syrian authorities after writing an article about official corruption, but said she would not have been able to count on the country’s only journalists’ union to help her.

Jamous, who writes for a number of Syrian websites, recently produced an investigative piece on the sprawling slums in Damascus, denouncing those officials whose responsibility it is to stop illegal building – but allow it to go ahead in exchange for bribes.

Following publication of the story, the journalist was summoned several times for questioning by security officials, who warned her against publishing such stories in future.

Like many Syrian journalists, Jamous is not a member of the Journalists’ Union because she says the body was designed “to limit the freedom of reporters”.

In Syria, the media is heavily restricted. Dozens of journalists and writers have been prosecuted under the country’s draconian press law in the past few years, according to human rights groups.

Under this legislation, reporters can face up to three years’ imprisonment for stories considered to be a threat to national security or an insult to the state.

Yet many media workers say there is little protection for them.

They argue that the Journalists’ Union – the only organisation representing media professionals – is a heavily bureaucratic and fails to defend colleagues who have problems with the authorities.

When prominent intellectual and journalist Michel Kilo was arrested, the union completely abandoned him, said Mouhanad al-Husni, a human rights advocate who represents Kilo.

Kilo was released from jail last week after completing a three-year sentence for “instigating sectarian strife” and “weakening national sentiment”.

Observers say that Kilo was imprisoned after penning a controversial article on sectarianism, in which he wrote critically about the way the political dominance of the Alawi sect – from which most of the country’s elite are drawn – affected the Syrian psyche.

However, even though Kilo was a union member, the organisation did not even try to appoint a lawyer to defend him following his arrest, said Husni.

Ali Farzat, a caricaturist and independent journalist, said the union not only fails to protect journalists, but also acts against them.

“The [union] contents itself with collecting membership fees from journalists, but when a reporter is in trouble for something he wrote, not only does the [union] turn its back on him, but it also works against him and tries to throw him out the union,” said Farzat.

Farzat said that he, himself, was expelled from the union shortly after the authorities closed down his newspaper, Al-Dumari, which was the first private publication in Syria to emerge after the Ba’ath party took power in 1963.

Instead of supporting his right to freedom of expression, the union sued him for professional misconduct and revoked his membership, he said.

According to Farzat, the union acted under orders from the authorities because he had denounced senior figures involved in corruption in his newspaper.

Husni also believes the union “is under government [influence] instead of being devoted entirely to the profession”.

A key article in the rules governing the body, he went on, states that it should abide by the “vision” of the ruling party. This was added in the Sixties to counter Islamist political influence, which was deemed to be a threat to the Ba’athists, say analysts.

Moreover, the minister of information sits on the union’s disciplinary committee, which can punish or even dismiss journalists seen as having breached professional ethics.

Elias Murad, head of union since 2006, insisted that politicians “have never so far interfered in any internal matter of the [union]”.

He rejected all the accusations made against his organisation, insisting that it had on many occasions defended journalists, non-members included.

Murad maintained the union’s 1,850 members also benefit on other ways. He said they are provided with press cards which allow them to approach officials, and are also offered discounts on plane tickets.

Although all journalists in Syria are legally required to be part of the union in order to work, the authorities turn a blind eye to the hundreds who have refused to join.

Anwar Bader, a journalist working as a correspondent for an Arab newspaper, said he has never sought to become a member.

“Like similar institutions in the world, the [union] here should be interested in defending its members and not official positions,” he said.

But Jamous argued that even if the body’s regulations and practices were reformed, journalists would still feel exposed in Syria.

Unless the country adopts more liberal laws regarding press freedom and the formation of associations, journalists will continue to feel that “their hands are tied”, she said.
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