Syria's only national journalists' union: membership has its privileges

The one official union representing reporter's rights in Syria is the Syrian Journalists Syndicate (SJS). But joining the SJS is a daunting task requiring background checks, and inside connections. MENASSAT's Omar Abdul Latif presents this investigative report on the process, seen by most critics as a rubber-stamp for supporters of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
elias mrad
"I’m not ready to give any journalist who is not patriotic a card of a contributing or working journalist," said Head of the Syrian Journalist Syndicate - Elias Mrad.

DAMASCUS, March 26, 2009 (MENASSAT) – You definitely get privileges if you're a “working” member of the only union representing journalists in Syria – the Syrian Journalist's Syndicate (SJS). But joining the SJS is a daunting task requiring background checks, and in most cases, inside connections that in the end only helps to reinforce Syria's restricted press environment.

What is required for membership?

Applicants first have to file a demand stating your desire to join as a “contributing member” to the SJS.

Potential members must present a copy of their college degree, or provide a sample of no-less than 20 published articles. And if they are working for a media organization, applicants must have an endorsement letter from that organization.

As well, potential SJS members are required to have no legal blemishes or judicial judgments against them, and only after this process has been completed is a membership decision taken by the SJS – a process that on average takes about 3-months.

But for Syrian reporters, privileges are only afforded to those applicants given “working” membership status.

In fact, meeting the membership requirements does not guarantee that an applicant will become a “working” member of the SJS.

A larger group of applicants are given the designation of “training” members. Only "working" members receive medical compensation, discount airfare and full retirement benefits.

“Imagine. This is all you get after joining the Association!” Damascus-based journalist Fathi Bayoud told MENASSAT.

Like many young journalists working in Syria, Bayoud wasn't aware the application process would be so difficult.

“I noticed government media workers were accepted as 'working' members with little of the bureaucratic red tape,” he said.

Complicated procedures with no real gains

Bayoud said that most Syrian journalists join the SJS because legally any working journalist is required to join under Article 18 of the Syrian penal code - although the reality in practice is much different.

[The shackles that bind journalists in Syria - a cartoon from dissident cartoonist Ali Farzat © Ali Farzat]

Although Bayoud was eventually given “working” member status, he said it did little for him when it came time to do foreign correspondence work.

Any journalist traveling outside of Syria is required to submit an endorsement letter from their employer to the Syrian information ministry, Bayoud said, adding that travel for Syrian reporters totally depended on the Syrian Information Minister's approval.

Only after the minister's approval is the SJS allowed to hand out a press card.

But this does not entitle journalists to any form of protection by the Syrian government because the regime states that “working” members can't be members of the SJS outside of Syria.

Members who stop working in Syria automatically lose their membership.

Elias Mrad, head of the SJS told MENASSAT that traveling was indeed difficult for Syrian journalists, “But every rule has exceptions; where it's possible for journalists working outside Syria to be a working member according to his status and situation - the executive branch of the association studies the information before making this decision.”

Membership breakdown

SJS counts some 1850 members, including working and training members.

Theoretically, each working member is meant to pass through a “training period” to obtain “working” member status.

This ranges from four years of “training” for recent high-school graduates to three years for university graduates with no less than two years of media studies, and for SJS applicants with higher university degrees there is a two year “training” period.

The trainee is bound during the training period to work in a media institution accepted by the SJS' executive bureau.

Training members are accepted as “working” members only after finishing the required training period. This period also includes presenting annual reports detailing the progress of the training and passing a test set by the registration committee which takes the final decision to confer “working” status or extend the training period to six additional months.

Freelancers or journalists working as stringers for foreign agencies can't join the SJS as “working” members before declaring their statuses: Did they sign contracts with their agencies? Do they pay insurance fees…?

Mrad told MENASSAT, “The executive bureau stopped issuing press cards to media graduates until the SJS formulated a different system for determining who receives a membership-press card. Currently, the cards are only handed out to high-profile reporters or media professionals or academics, such as university professors writing about their specialties."

Concerning the discrimination between the private and public workers, Mrad said, “We are now studying the possibility of including the private sector workers, either through establishing a private association for them, or a league that would be connected to our association.”

But journalists like Fathi Bayoud are not the only ones facing problems.

Indeed, many journalists interviewed told MENASSAT they had abandoned the SJS membership process all together because of the litany of obstacles  in their way. 

Independent journalist Anwar Bader never thought of joining the SJS because of the organization's bureaucratic application process - "which treats the journalist as only a number."

Bader said the SJS is an anachronism that, at its core, was never really designed to defend the rights of journalists."The internal regulations of the SJS have to be modified and the government has to modify the press laws."

Like many journalists not attached to the SJS, Bader told MENASSAT that Syria needed a union for editors, and another for media workers.

"The SJS suggested this, but nothing has been implemented. Aren’t they convinced of the need to change? Then why don’t they change?”

The association is part of the political system

Critics of the SJS policies are quick to point out that membership in the association does not guarantee protection – especially if reporters or editors fail to tow the pro-regime view of domestic affairs.

Cartoonist and journalist Ali Farzat (pictured right) joined the SJS in 1975. He said the SJS did nothing when the government closed his newspaper, Al-Doumari, in 2003.

Al-Doumari, established in 1963 as the first private newspaper in Syria, was closed for violating the press law.

In 2003, the SJS not only failed to defend Al-Doumar but went after Farzat personally, filing a legal suit with the Arab Writers Association to ban him from the SJS.

Farzat told MENASSAT, “The SJS has nothing to do with the needs of journalists. It has taken all of the financial and ethical capital of journalists  and in the end gives them nothing back – the SJS becomes a burden on them.”

“If a journalist faces a problem, the association abandons him, but they still take his membership fees.”

Mrad disagrees with Farzat's assessment of the SJS. The SJS has been invaluable for reporters, he said, countering that the SJS doesn't support journalists that violate the press laws.

According to Mrad, Al-Doumari violated the laws established by the interior ministry. “This issue is between the ministry and Al-Doumari. So what does the association have to do with it?”

“I defend the journalist, not the newspaper. I have defended every journalist who has come to us. I will defend him even if he is not member of the association. But sometimes I don’t defend a journalist when I’m convinced that he made a terrible mistake. But, even then, I wouldn’t accept if he were treated unjustly,” Mrad said, in a veiled reference to Farzat.

Mrad is quick to point out that the SJS is indeed part of the political establishment.

“It is not a professional but a national syndicate. I’m not ready to give any journalist who is not patriotic a card of a contributing or working journalist. If a journalist works inside Syria and criticizes, then there is no problem. But if you work for an external newspaper that fabricates bad news about our nation, I won’t protect you nor give you a card.”

Accusations of dependence and the association denies

As for reforms in the Syrian Journalist Syndicate's internal organization, critics are quick to accuse the SJS as being entrenched in its ways precisely because any change in its structure would question its relationship to the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.

Article 3 in the SJS' charter describes the association as, “A professional syndicate believing in the goals of the Arab nation in unity, freedom and socialism and is committed to accomplish these goals according to the decisions and directions of the Socialist Arab Baath Party.”

Critics also point to Article 103 that gives the government the ultimate authority over SJS decisions. "SJS decisions can be annulled by a ministerial decision, if it fails to fulfill its mission and goals. The decision is then irrefutable and can’t be appealed.”

Is the SJS just a institutional front for the Assad government. Absolutely not, Mrad contends.

"The SJS board is the only one capable of annulling executive bureau decisions. The government...the Information Minister has nothing to do with the association! Till this day, neither the minister nor the Prime Minister has interfered in any matter related to the SJS.”

“However”, he said, “there are specific ways to communicate with different branches of government. And the internal regulations state that the executive bureau can be annulled if it violates the law.”

Concerning the changes in membership criterion, Mrad told MENASSAT,  “We are leaning towards using a new membership application process by which the journalist should be a college graduate in order to raise journalistic standards."

He added, "We are also thinking about issuing a law to differentiate between the journalist and the media worker, such as those working in photography, archiving and correction.”

Regardless, Mrad said any new law concerning the SJS would only be passed with the approval of many departments including the parliament and the council of ministers.

"There has been a committee established to write a draft law for the SJS. Another committee is currently studying the condition of the press and media workers," he said.

Meanwhile, Syrian journalists like Anwar Bader, Ali Farzat and Fathi Bayoud all told MENASSAT that what they expected in the very least was a journalists syndicate that would defend freedom of speech above all else.

"The mission for any syndicate in the world is to defend its members even if they make a mistake, not to defend the government’s stand against the syndicate’s members," Bader said.