Palestinian journalists head toward controversial union elections today

UPDATE: By 10 pm in Jerusalem on Saturday evening, it was clear that the 63 candidates of the “Unity” list had won the controversial elections in the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, and will form a new governing “Council”.

According to one journalist involved, there were 510 journalists who participated in the voting today in El-Bireh/Ramallah (out of some 700 who had showed up on Friday and were eligible to vote), and 360 votes had been recorded so far for the “Unity” list, while counting continued.  He said it may take another couple of days for everything to be finished.

The new Council, composed of the 63 members of the “Unity” list, will now elect from among themselves a 21-member “Executive Office” to manage day-to-day affairs. This 21-member “Executive Office” will soon vote to elect the first new head of the PJS in almost two decades.

UPDATE TWO: On Sunday, the head of the elections committee, Riyad al-Hassan, announced that  there were, in the final analyis, 446 valid ballots, and the “Unity” list won with 312 of those valid votes. The terms of office for the new officials, he said, would be three years — unless it becomes possible to hold balloting in Gaza, at which point new elections will be held.


Earlier: It was a bit of a confusing mess.

The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (or Union) has not had a General Assembly, or an election, for nearly 20 years. (Precisely, it seems, the stagnation has lasted for 16 years.)

For at least 16 years, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate has been headed by one Naim Toubassi [alternate spellings in English possible, including Tubassi, Tobassi, Toubasi, Tubasi, and so on]. (Some complain that he has never been a journalist, but was only previously involved in newspaper distribution.)

No one has seen the membership rolls, which have swollen to just over 1,000 enrolled persons. (Some estimates are that only half of this number are really journalists.)

No one has seen a financial report. (Dues for membership in the PJS are 1,000 N.I.S. – Israeli shekels – per year: for purposes of comparison, this is the same cost as dues for membership in the Foreign Press Association, based in Tel Aviv, most of whose members work for major international media organizations.)

For over a year, there has been an effort by some journalists to open the windows and let in some fresh air.

Then, just before this weekend’s General Assembly, which convened yesterday in the Salim Effendi hall next to the El-Bireh municipal building, very close to the center of downtown Ramallah, there were calls from various quarters to postpone the meeting, and the elections.

Even the International Federation of Journalists, based in Brussels — which had been apprised of the situation in very clear terms during a visit to Ramallah last summer, and which seemed to say that new elections should be held but that it was not the IFJ’s business to become directly involved — suddenly turned around and on 29 January issued a statement, posted here, saying:
‘We welcome the enthusiasm and commitment of the Palestinian journalists to reform their syndicate (PJS)’, said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. ‘This congress is many years overdue and we are happy it is finally happening’. The IFJ says, however, that there are concerns within the Palestinian journalists’ community because of undue political interference in the preparation of the PJS congress. The Federation is calling for the postponement of the congress scheduled to be held on 5th February for a short period to allow journalists to put in place a structure acceptable to all which will guarantee an open and inclusive process leading to a unifying congress. ‘We are deeply worried that the current process is unclear for many journalists’, added White, ‘The IFJ is ready to do what it can to insure that Palestinian journalists have full confidence in this preparation and we are committed to do all we can to ensure the success of this process’. The IFJ says that its leadership is ready to organize an urgent mission to Palestine in order to help creating an agreement on holding the PJS Congress“.

On 2 February, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), which happens to be based in Gaza, weighed in, saying in a statement that it “has apologized for not participating in the supervision of elections of the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate scheduled to be held on 05 February 2010. Mr. Raji Sourani, Director of PCHR, sent this apology in the form of a letter, in response to an invitation previously sent by the Journalists’ Syndicate asking PCHR to participate in the supervision of the Syndicate’s elections.
PCHR explained in its letter that it had followed the developments in the Journalists’ Syndicate over the past years. The Centre is still observing the latest developments and arguments with regard to the Syndicate, including problems related to membership and the right to vote, as well as the impact of the internal fragmentation and political crisis on the Syndicate. PCHR stressed that it strongly supports conducting these long-awaited elections. However, it stressed that these elections should be transparent and should represent all journalists. This step should be considered the basic foundation of the Syndicate, so that it does not only represent and serve journalists, but also constitutes a basic component of Palestinian civil society, helping in the resolution of our national questions”. Under the circumstances, PCHR said in this statement, it cannot help supervise these elections unless they would be delayed: “it would not be able to participate in the supervision of elections because supervision is part of a more comprehensive process and a series of procedures, which were not observed by the Centre. PCHR added that it has closely followed the reactions towards elections in the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate and the stance of the International Federation of Journalists, which calls for deferring elections for some time. PCHR expresses its hope that the Journalists’ Syndicate gives consideration to calls from inside and outside the journalists’ Union for deferring elections; in addition to beginning to conduct real reform, including reconsidering its membership system. PCHR stressed that it is ready to use its experience in the field of elections in order to contribute to the efforts exerted for this purpose”.

There was a confusing report published by Ma’an News Agency on 31 January — after the IFJ statement, but before PCHR’s — which said that “Dozens of female journalists from Gaza rallied on Sunday in front of the office of the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate in Gaza City, demanding that membership be opened up to women”. However, it seems that the issue was not membership, but rather quotas for women — a practice that has been adopted in most organizations of the overall Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as well as in some of the derivative institutions in the Palestinian Authority (PA) which is now based in Ramallah, and, though to a lesser extent, in the main Palestinian political movement Fatah. The Ma’an article continued: “Journalist Dunya Isma’il called on the PJS to introduce a set quota for women members, as in the Palestinian Legislative Council. ‘We request legal standards in registration and representation of female journalists in all the union’s committees, including membership and contest committees’, she said. Isma’il said that the union’s elections should be delayed until a more appropriate time, and called for the democratic and professional performance of the PJS, regardless of political affiliation. ‘Partiality has not benefited journalism, rather, it has deepened the rivalry’. Present action, she said, was but a step in a series of actions which will be taken in order to exert pressure on the PJS’ board to adopt democratic standards. Ula Abu Zayid of the Female Journalists’ Forum, further said that elections must be based on professionalism, adding that at least 20% of candidates for the PJS’ board must be women. Abu Zayid also requested that all the names of the union’s general assembly be officially announced to the public, and that contests remain open for a long enough period before candidates are announced. Like her colleague, Abu Zayid said that elections should be delayed to ensure that the electoral process is clear to all journalists. The FJF will boycott elections if their demands are not met by the syndicate, she said”. This Ma’an article is posted here.

At the beginning of this week, a court in Hamas-ruled Gaza helpfully issued a ban on the participation of the Gaza members of the Syndicate in the vote scheduled today.

Gaza media figures are now calling on the IFJ and others to boycott the results of today’s elections in El-Bireh – Ramallah.

There are apparently some 250 to 300 members of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate trapped in Gaza. According to one knowledgeable source, 700 members of the PJS were present for a roll-call in the El-Bireh hall on Friday afternoon.

Part of Friday’s proceedings were broadcast live on Palestinian Television.

The visuals support reports that there has been political intervention — a more positive-sounding term — if not political interference.

They also reinforced observations that there are far more men than women involved in Palestinian journalism and politics. (There are very many the Palestinian journalists who are photographers or cameramen, or technicians, out on the front lines around the West Bank and in Gaza as well. Also, the ranks of “intellectuals” — meaning the columnists, and editors — are also dominated by men.)

Fatah Central Committee member Tawfik Tirawi (former chief of the General Intelligence services) sat in the center of the front row, facing the speakers’ podium. After the national anthem was played to the packed standing audience, and after those present were asked to stand and observe a moment of silence (for personal recitations, it was said, of the Fatiha, the most used prayer which is also a verse of the Quran) Presidential aide Tayyib Abdur-Rahman made the first speech. (He said there should be no language of confusion, just the language of democracy. At the end of his speech, he offered what might have been some news scoops about the recent visit of U.S. Special Middle East Envoy George Mitchell.)

By the time Tayyib Abdur-Rahman finished, more than one-third of the chairs were empty, but the back of the room was crowded with mingling men, smoking, drinking coffee, talking on mobile phones, and talking in small groups to each other…

The irony is that those journalists who most ardently support reform are now grateful for this political intervention/interference.

They believe that the only way to effect change is to have new elections, and begin the process of looking through the membership rolls, and through the accounting ledgers, to build up the organization again.

So, barring a major surprise, the Palestinian journalists will have their elections today — but the Presidential and Legislative Council elections are still on hold. Those elections were officially called for 24 January, by an announcement made in Ramallah by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) then postponed a few weeks later by another decision by Abbas endorsing doubts expressed by the Palestinian Independent Electoral Commission that elections could be held under the present circumstances of division between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the PA-ruled West Bank.

One journalist said Saturday that Abbas had given a written and signed order to Naim Toubassi not to run again in Sunday’s PJS elections. In his own speech to the General Assembly on Friday, Toubassi reportedly confirmed he would not run (I confess I was more struck by the political-rally style of his statement, including such phrases as “[East] Jerusalem is our capital”).

In any case, there seems to have been some political deal made…

In December, the Palestinian Authority Attorney-General had issued an arrest warrant against Naim Toubassi concerning three separate cases for which he had reportedly refused to appear for questioning. Was this an attempt to force the elections, as Toubassi claims?

Ma’an News Agency reported, somewhat confusingly, at the time that “In the first suit, filed by the Journalists Syndicate, Tubasi is accused of embezzlement. [PA Attorney-General] Al-Mughanni said an investigation into the issue was postponed until the union could vote on the issue. In the second suit, a Ramallah resident accused Tubasi of refusing to pay for a tract of land that the syndicate purchased. The third suit was filed by Hafith Barghouthi, the chief editor of the Palestinian daily newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, accusing Tubasi of libel. In the dispute with Barghouthi, Al-Mughanni added that after being summoned several times, Tubasi appeared and it was agreed that he to undergo mediation with Barghouthi, but the issue was not resolved in talks. For his part, Tubasi said PA security forces broke into his home several times in a span of two days. ‘This is unprecedented against journalists’, he told Ma’an. He denied all the charges and accused Barghouthi himself of libel. He also said the arrest warrant was an attempt to disrupt planned syndicate elections”… This report can be read in full here.

To be continued …

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