Journalist union democratisation hijacked by Fatah-aligned security agency

The hoped for revival and democratisation of the Palestinian journalists union – with the support of the International Federation of Journalists – seems to have collapsed in a heap.

Journalists in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are angrily denouncing the Palestinian Authority over its  interference in the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (PJS) election held last week.

Many journalists accused the PA leadership of stealing the vote to ensure that Fatah members and security officers took control of the union.

The Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate (PJS) – has not had an election for nearly twenty years and has been almost moribund for most of that time.

President Abbas forces union leader to stand aside

The national leader of the PJS,   Na’im Toubassi,  was said to have received specific written instructions before election day, from the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,  to say he was not to stand as a candidate.

The president of the union, Na’im Toubassi,  is a veteran journalist and Fatah supporter. He seems to have taken up a quixotic  mission to push for the revival and democratization of the union – with the support of the International Federation of Journalists.

Former top security chief intervenes on behalf of Fatah

But Fatah Central Committee member , Major-General Tawfiq At-Terawy, a former top security intelligence officer  pressured Mr Toubassi to give up his democracy campaign and reverse his decision to run again for the union leadership.

Photos last week from the union election-day meeting clearly showed the Major-General sitting in the centre of the front row. Dissident journalists have claimed he had positioned himself to indicate by his presence he was there to ensure the ‘right’ result was delivered after the vote.

Media reports from the West Bank have suggested Toubassi was told that if he ran then the Attorney-General’s office would go ahead and charge him with stealing monies  from the union – but if he agreed not to run he could expect a comfortable sinecure in a Palestinian ministriy office.

Earlier the A-G’s office had stepped back from the threat of legal action against the PJS President

Hamas reacts to Fatah security agency meddling in union election

The Hamas-controlled Gazan de-facto government has reacted to Fatah’s meddling by declaring the PJS election ‘illegal’.

“There is nothing in Gaza known as a journalists’ union board [administrative council], and nobody is authorized to operate under this name according to law. Thus, we wait to see what the journalists blocs in Gaza decide,” a statement issued by the Gaza government read according to the Ma’an News Agency.

“We call upon the International Federation of Journalists and the Arab Federation of Journalists to visit the occupied Palestinian territories and check this ‘farce’ called an election.”

The de facto government statement called the recent Palestinian Journalists Syndicate elections “illegal in shape and form.”

Human rights groups refuse to participate in election process – global union groups calls for election day delay

Certainly a number of independent human rights organizations  including the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and the Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights politely declined to supervise the election process – because most people believe they did not wanted to be tainted with an election process which was patently undemocratic.

Aidan White

Earlier the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) – the global union for journalists – had issued a highly unusual statement supporting the need for a democratic election but calling for the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate to delay the election so as to ensure the process is completely transparent.

The Palestinian journalist union president  Na’im Toubassi is a member of the international executive of the IFJ and had received a lot of moral, technical and financial support as he sought to reform and revitalize the union.

Palestinian and Israeli media outlets agree that ‘election’ was a joke

Kawther Salam – a dissident, radical, exile Palestinian journalist based in Vienna, Austria – has given a quite good diary account of the failed election process on The Palestinian Think Tank blog site.

The Jerusalem Post reported that many journalists have told the Israeli newspaper they would not cooperate with the newly-elected syndicate and urged the PA to cancel the vote and hold new a new vote.

Much of what The Post writes has been confirmed by a number of other Palestinian news websites – such as the Ma’an News Agency.

Hani al-Masri, a prominent journalist from Ramallah, told The Jerusalem Post there had been “no real supervision” during the voting for the syndicate’s general assembly.

Security forces, PA employees and political activists were registered as journalists

About 300 “journalists” who participated in the election had nothing to do with journalism, he said. “Some of them were members of the Palestinian security forces, while most of the journalists who were registered as members of the syndicate’s generals assembly were actually employees of the Palestinian Authority or political activists,” he added.

Masri also complained that many of the “journalists” who ran in the election or were allowed to cast ballots had abandoned the profession a long time ago and were involved in other work.

Journalists from Gaza excluded from election

He noted that hundreds of Palestinian journalists from Gaza were excluded from the election. “We can’t talk about democratic or legitimate elections while hundreds of journalists from the Gaza Strip were deprived of their right to run or vote,” he said.

Masri and many other journalists said the results of the vote for the syndicate show that it has now become a “branch of Fatah.”

Independent and professional journalists scoffing at farce and fraud described as election

The Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported that independent and professional journalists are scoffing at the PJS journalists’ union elections which took place on Saturday, 6 February, under the aegis of the Fatah organization, describing the event as a “farce” and “fraud.”

“The election was a joke, the results were a foregone conclusion,”  Yusuf, a radio journalist from the Hebron region told Ma’an.

Reminds one of ‘union elections’ run under old communist regimes of Eastern Europe

He adds “I wouldn’t want to offend language by calling this farce an election. True elections must be open to all journalists, irrespective of their ideological orientations. This so-called election reminds me of union elections under the old communist regimes in Eastern Europe where everything was concocted by the Communist party.”

Another journalist, Fathi Sabbah, described the process as “illegitimate and illegal.”

“There is no doubt that the aim of this election had nothing to do with efforts to reform the journalists’ union. The process was a fraud from A to Z and the main purpose of the elections was to create a union with a form but without a substance in order to be manipulated and used by Fatah for political and factional considerations.

“They just want a union at their beck and call, this is the reason they concocted this body out of quasi and little journalists and other people who lack the professional qualifications to be true journalists.”

Sabbah castigated the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and other leftist organizations for allowing themselves to be “duped” by Fatah, which he said led to the “arrogation of the union.”

“Hundreds of present and former union members have been shocked to see the PFLP stoop to this level in order to obtain a piece of this sinful cake.”

New union leaders are ‘lame horses replacing dead horses’

A third journalist, Gibreil Saadeh described the new union as “lame horses replacing dead horses.”

A fourth, Hisham Sharabati of Hebron, likened the union elections with union elections in tyrannical Arab states where everything is arranged beforehand.

“As I was watching the plenary session of the union elections on the Palestine TV, I remembered how things are done in one of the very nationalistic Arab states, run by a vanguardist party in whose orbit other parties revolve …”

Membership roles brazenly manipulated

Critics, who hail from various ideological backgrounds, are citing numerous flaws in the Fatah-dominated journalists union, which they say would render the union decidedly illegal and un-representative of Palestinian journalists.

One of the most delegitimizing flaws is the issue of membership which critics claim is manipulated rather brazenly in order to ensure that the union remains permanently in the hands of the Fatah organisation.

Journalists in name, security officials in reality

“They grant memberships to people who have little or nothing to do with the profession of journalism as long as they go with the flow. It is like allowing blacksmiths to join the doctors’ guild or allowing shepherds to join the engineers’ union,” says Nael from Ramallah.

“Besides, it is conspicuously clear that a large number of members are actually members of the various security agencies. They are journalists in name, but security officers in reality.”

Nael’s remarks don’t seem to be exaggerated. The membership of the journalists union has not been sifted for many years, and many of the people previously registered as journalists in the early or mid 1990s are no longer practicing the profession, assuming they had ever done that in the first place.

“There is irrefutable evidence that many of the estimated 300-400 people who voted as a bloc for the new union were security cadres. This is why this is a fraudulent election, it is an affront to the profession of journalism, it is an insult to Palestinian democracy, it is even an insult to our dignity as a people.”

Talk of creating new independent journalists union

Some journalists say the election result might prompt journalists who are unaffiliated with PLO to establish their own representative body instead of risking being marginalized by the Fatah-dominated body.

Nonetheless, Ma’an News Agency said, there are those who would rather give the new union the benefit of the doubt, at least for the time being.

Others say ailing union is better than a dead union

“Let us look at the half-full of the proverbial glass. The old union had been virtually dead from time immemorial. This union is not going to be an idealistic union, but let us wait and see. Maybe something good might come out of it,” says Awadh Rajoub, a West Bank correspondent for al-Jazeera.net Arabic service.

“An ailing union is better than a dead one, isn’t it?”

Read earlier reports on the TULIP website