Lebanese Journos Contest Union Election Results

Reporters and editors excluded from membership are furious about results of the Lebanese Journalists Union (LJU) election so they're suing the syndicate and its president on charges of corruption, irregularities and violations of its bylaws.

Journalists Youssef Hajj-Ali, Bassam Kantar and Ibrahim Desouki filed suit in Beirut's Court of First Instance requesting it nullify results of last month's election that they charged included infractions before and during the balloting.

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Screen shot of Youssef Hajj-Ali

"The largest number of those in the profession are either trying (to join) or are excluded from the members' list," Hajj-Ali told Al Jadeed TV. "One of the aims is to enter the union and effect change from within."

He said the plaintiffs and their backers didn't want a union that conducts official visits to politicians, kisses up to them, and pays tribute to dead people, but an organization that works for journalists.

Reporters who have been roughed up by police while covering civil disturbances and other news complain the LJU pays lip service to press freedom and does nothing to protect them.

Asked if he'd heard of the LJU's president and whether the union had stood up for him, journalist Abdel Rahman Orabi, who was beaten up by the cabinet's security detail a year ago, said it hadn't intervened in his behalf.

"Sadly, with this memory comes the election of the Journalists Union that I only heard of when I was in college," he added.

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Screen shot of report on journalists filing suit

The lawsuit also fell back on a report by the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) that it said recorded 16 infractions monitored at the polling place.

"The electoral list of voters and candidates wasn't set by the appropriate authority but was created by the union's presidents, past and present (Melhem Karam and Elias Aoun)," noted Diala Chehade, a lawyer representing the three journalists.

This contradicts the wording of Lebanon's Publications Law and the bylaws of the Lebanese Press Federation, an umbrella for two separate syndicates. The federation decides on who gets to become a member in each body.

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Screen shot of attorney Diala Chehade

Chehade also pointed to the lack of respect for the LJU's bylaws that stipulate the non-participation of responsible directors of local publications in the elections.

Kantar said 173 people on the election list were responsible directors at daily, weekly and monthly publications.

All publications must have a "moudeer mas-oul" (responsible director), a person held liable in court for violations by a publication but who need not be a full-time employee of a newspaper or magazine.

This allows publishers and owners who are members of the Lebanese Press Federation to wiggle out of legal tight spots.

"Today, who is the reference for an editor?" asked Chehade. "The LJU council that's supposed to adjudicate conflicts between editors and their (publisher/owner) management, so imagine if this same management is present in the union's council."

The plaintiffs said they suspected Aoun, who was reelected as president, had no right to run in the election and to vote.

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Screen shot of LJU President Elias Aoun

"Mr. Elias Aoun isn't on the list of electors. We asked to see if he's even a member of the Journalists' Union. We heard he's a member of the Lebanese Press Federation," Chehade charged.

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Screen shot of questioning Aoun's right to run

Aoun said detractors who targeted the August election were motivated by non-union aims.

He claimed the balloting was transparent and denied political motivations were behind the new council's election.

But he insisted on adding his name by hand on the voters' list at the last minute because, he claimed, it was "accidentally deleted."

The lawsuit goes further to request examination of the union's finances.

Chehade has asked for the appointment of a sworn financial expert to examine the LJU's bank accounts from the previous council's mandate as well as from the current body.

"According to available information, the union hasn't held a general assembly in its history during which its budget has been examined like any normal union," she said.

Bassam Kantar, who set up a Facebook page dubbed "Campaign to Reform the Press Federation and Journalists' Union" said financial irregularities and corruption had prompted him into action.

Lebanon ranked 136 out of 175 - with a score of 27 out of 100 - on the 2014 Transparency International index of countries measured for corruption.

Opponents of the union's antiquated system demand it amend its bylaws and update its membership requirements. They also call for limits on presidential terms to three non-renewable years. A former president can run again after a full term by another candidate.

Opponents also want Lebanon's 1961 publications law to be modernized. It hasn't been updated since.

The LJU's current members and council seem interested in preserving their benefits.

These include 50% discounted tickets on the national carrier Middle East Airlines, free entry to Lebanon's historical sites, unspecified financial assistance, and free entry in clubs across the country.

Members were previously granted discounts on fixed line and cell phone subscriptions as well as on their water and electricity bills, which the LJU is trying to reinstate.

Ironically, Aoun asked students at the state-run Lebanese University's College of Communication in May why they wanted to become journalists.

Speaking at a conference on the role of media syndicates in Lebanon, he was quoted as saying, "the state supports unions and we should cooperate with the state," much to the horror of many in attendance.

He tried to discourage students from pursuing graduate degrees in media studies.

"Why do you want with journalism?" he asked. "You should do an M.A. in something else, maybe journalism doesn't work for you."

Aoun's conference speech, entitled "Towards a New Union Movement," excluded online media and bloggers.

He was also quoted as saying, "Anyone can write whatever he wants and publish from home while sitting in the bathroom. They've (presumably authorities) asked me to corral the Internet people."

The LJU was founded in 1941. A Christian heads it, whereas the Press Federation is presided by a Muslim, in keeping with the country's precarious sectarian balance.

Melhem Karam headed the LJU for 44 years, effectively turning it into his fiefdom before dying in 2010. He also owned publications in Arabic, French and English, in clear violation of his organization's bylaws.