On Aug. 29, a court in Egypt sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists — Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed — to three years in prison for aiding a terrorist organization and operating in Egypt without a license. (Greste was deported to Australia in February.) To justify the verdict, the Egyptian judge said they are not recognized as journalists because they are not part of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate (EJS), the body tasked with organizing and accrediting Egyptian reporters and editors. (Established in 1941 to defend the press, the EJS is usually aligned with Egypt’s ruling powers.)
The judge’s words struck home, though I don’t live in Egypt. That a small group of people — be it a journalism association or a few judges — could decide whether someone is a journalist angered me.
Unfortunately, this case is hardly unique. In most Arab countries, you are not considered a journalist if you do not belong to exclusive journalism syndicates. It does not matter how many awards and what recognition you have received or how many people read your work or what editors think about your professionalism.
Across the Arab world, press syndicates were created largely to accommodate print journalists who work for governmental or government-affiliated newspapers. For example, the EJS admits only print journalists, leaving radio, television and online reporters unable to legally practice their trade. Nonprint journalists are punished for not being members of a union that doesn’t accept them.
These unions often defend the ruling autocrats and are showered with various perks and gifts from friendly governments. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein reportedly gave Egyptian journalists expensive cars as rewards for favorable coverage. EJS members are included in government-funded housing projects and received health insurance and stipends.
The practice is not unique to Egypt. For the past 15 years, I have been working as a journalist in Jordan, a staunch U.S. ally and a monarchy with an excellent image in the West. The advocacy group Freedom House, however, classifies Jordan as not free, and in 2014 Reporters Without Borders ranked the kingdom an abysmal 141st out of 180 countries on its annual world press freedom index. The low ranking has much to do with the ways in which authorities treated online journalism in the last few years.
In June 2013 nearly 300 Jordanian news websites were blocked because they did not adhere to a draconian law that forced site owners to get licenses similar to those held by print newspapers. (International journalism watchdog groups condemned the decision to block the websites.)
The law requires online platforms to hire an editor-in-chief who has been a member of the Jordan Press Association for at least four years. However, like its Egyptian counterpart, the Jordanian syndicate allowed only print journalists at the time. Despite this requirement, multimedia journalists were not allowed to join the local syndicate.
The syndicate’s bylaws have since been amended to allow online journalists, but they still face a lot of bureaucratic red tape to join the closed-shop union.
Those who practice journalism without membership in this exclusive club are seen as unprofessional pretenders. Although it is not often imposed, impersonating a journalist is a crime that carries a six-month jail term in most Arab countries.
Arab journalist syndicates are beholden to government-imposed ideological conditions. In Syria, for example, the law regulating the federation of journalists demands that all members “believe in the goals of the Arab nation of unity, freedom and socialism.” A similar Iraqi law states that journalists must “support the struggle of the Arab people against colonialism and Zionism and reactionary forces.” In Jordan it mandates syndicate members to pledge their support for “nationalist and Islamic pride and to diffuse human values that are derived from our Arab and Islamic civilization.”
Most unions make no distinction between senior editors, publishers and journalists. Senior editors and publishers often take leadership roles, leaving regular journalists without a voice on important decisions that affect their lives.
Journalism, whether practiced by members of a union or citizen journalists, is not a crime. Restricting journalism to members of a national syndicate, especially in the digital age, is simply unacceptable. People who write opinions, post blogs, produce TV reports or anchor online radio programs are journalists, regardless of whether they join a state-sanctioned union.
Amid the global outcry for the release of Fahmy and Mohamed, it is important to also call for an end to the draconian laws across the Arab world that categorize journalists on the basis of membership in pro-government associations.