BEIRUT: “Take one step at a time” is an expression often heard, yet very few succeed in its practice. Elias Aoun – the new head of the Journalists Union – is one of those few. When he was elected to the post in May, the union counted 900 journalists. Today, it comprises more than 1,200 members.
Over 300 journalists were officially enrolled after being denied entrance for years under Aoun’s predecessor, the late Melhem Karam, who started his four-decade tenure at the body in 1961.
Aoun says all those who applied for membership and met the requirements in the union’s bylaws were admitted.
“This first step was to do justice to those who deserve to join the union. The second step will be to revoke membership to those who no longer deserve it,” Aoun says.
Those whose membership will be suspended include individuals who changed professions or emigrated, as well as deceased journalists who are still listed on the union’s membership roll.
“We will not stop at this point. The admission committee will continue to hold periodic meetings to assess the status of current members to determine whether they still meet the membership requirements,” Aoun adds.
The union is also planning to pursue reforms by opening the door to non-print media employees, including journalists who report for news websites, television and radio stations.
“Electronic media outlets complement print publications as the number of internets users in Lebanon and around the globe continue to increase at a fast pace,” Aoun explains.
The move will bolster the role of the union turning into an effective force, he adds proudly.
At that point, the union can put pressure on the government to meet its standing demands and protect its members against attempts to curb freedom of press, he argues.
Not everyone has been pleased by Aoun’s work since assuming office. The Press Federation, which represents publishers, recently sought to block Aoun’s efforts to expand the Journalists Union and suspend the memberships of individuals who no longer qualify.
Traditionally, the union has sought the federation’s approval before admitting members. Four members of the Press Federation currently sit on the board of the Journalists Union’s eight-member admission committee.
This practice was customary under Karam who headed the union while simultaneously holding membership in the Press Federation as the owner of some 11 publications.
Aoun argues that this overlap leads to interference.
“The conflict of interest between employers [publishers] and employees [journalists] requires the complete separation between the Press Federation and the Journalists Union,” says Aoun, who dismissed the federation’s objections to the admission of new members to the union.
Formalizing this change, however, requires the modernization of the media law that was ratified in 1962, he adds, highlighting that a committee of legal experts and veteran journalists has been tasked to work with lawmakers to bring before Parliament a modern media draft law for ratification.
For the time being, the work of print journalists is governed by the publication law. The law was amended in 2004 so that journalists were no longer subject to prison sentences, but they are still being issued hefty fines.
“The judiciary has a responsibility to look into each case thoroughly before imposing a large fine which most journalists cannot afford. The Court of Cassation is approving the first instance court verdicts without even reviewing them,” Aoun says.
Media activists have long complained that journalists’ interests have been neglected by the union but according to Aoun, this is about to change.
Journalists will soon be benefiting from special services, starting with discounts on their telephone and mobile bills as well as discount travel tickets for Middle East Airlines.
The union will also seek to improve social security and health care benefits.
While it is the employers’ rather the union’s responsibility to enroll journalists in the NSSF, Aoun says the union will look to assist journalists by seeking a collective work contract.
The union is also seeking to secure a new headquarters through negotiations with the government.
“Lebanon has long voiced pride in its role as a promoter of freedom of press and a pioneer in journalism. It is about time the government supports journalists, who represent the cornerstone of this model,” Aoun concludes.