Who is a journalist?

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Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed's trial has raised serious questions about media freedom and journalism in Egypt and the Arab world (AFP)

When activists defending the Al Jazeera journalists decided on their theme “Journalism is not a Crime,” they had no idea that they would have a problem with the courts rather than simply with the politicians and army in Egypt.

But the August 29 Egyptian court decision regarding journalists Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed focused on just that specific issue.

The question of who is a journalist, which has been argued ad nauseum at regional and international conferences, has now received a bizarre twist.

The prevailing law in Egypt, as it is in many Arab countries, has a narrow and almost comical definition.

The law simply states that to make the claim of being a journalist one has to be a member of the national press association. While membership in a press syndicate is thus made mandatory (a violation of the right of voluntarily joining a union), even this privilege is not open to all qualified members of the fourth estate.

The Egyptian Journalist’s Syndicate (EJS) only admits print journalists, thus leaving radio, television and online reporters disqualified from joining.

Most journalists’ syndicates also fail to differentiate between publishers, senior editors and field reporters, creating a clear conflict of interest when it comes to the defence of journalists’ basic rights.

Many a journalist facing work-related problems is unable to seek redress from the union, whose head is sometimes the very same boss with whom he is having the problem.

Foreign journalists are also disqualified from joining national unions, and while they sometimes create foreign journalists’ clubs, these clubs are nothing more than social forums, and gaining accreditation as a foreign journalist is almost like acquiring diplomatic accreditation.

"Pretending" to be journalists

Journalists working in Egypt and many other Arab countries, who are not members of their national trade union, are deemed to be ‘pretending’ to be journalist.

While rarely enforced, impersonating a journalist is a crime in most Arab countries that can land you - as seen with the Al Jazeera journalists - in jail. According to existing laws in Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt the punishment for ‘impersonating’ a journalists is six months in jail.

Whenever press freedom advocates protest the existence of such draconian laws, leaders respond by saying that they do not represent a problem.  They argue that non-union members are regularly allowed to attend official press conferences, are given exclusive interviews with senior officials and are often accredited when the attendance of journalists is limited.

These associations for journalists are no different than Soviet style closed “shop unions” that have been a historic failure.

In most Arab countries, these journalist union are specifically created by laws which are written in such a way to give journalists working for governmental media as well as semi-governmental media outlets a clear advantage. 

Many unions, such as Jordan's Press Association are awarded, by law, 1% of the revenue of the advertising income of national newspapers.

Arab journalist syndicates are not only restrictive in their memberships, but are often overloaded with government-imposed ideological conditions, as outlined by a study carried out by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

Defining journalism

The definition of who is a journalist, while important, should certainly not be determined by mandatory membership of a professional union or adherence to some government-imposed ideological rhetoric. 

In fact, it has now become widely accepted around the world, that there is no real need for a traditional definition of a journalist.  

Arab and international experts argue that “journalists’ syndicates and unions should not act as gatekeepers for the profession but, rather, should serve to protect and promote the rights of their members, and to advance freedom of expression and professional and ethical standards.”

They also resolved that governments should not decide who is and who isn’t a journalist.

The definition of a journalist is no longer necessary in a digital age in which so many are crowding into this ever growing field. 

Anyone writing an opinion, posting a blog, producing a piece for television or anchoring an online radio programme cannot be expected to join the journalist’s union.

Violations of national and international law

What is happening to journalists in Egypt is a violation of the country’s constitution of 2014, as well as acceptable international standards of the requirements for a free press and voluntary associations.

Article 70 of the Egyptian constitution states that “Freedom of press and printing, along with paper, visual, audio and digital distribution is guaranteed.”

Article 75 goes on to guarantee the voluntary right of creating associations: “Citizens have the right to form non-governmental organisations and institutions on a democratic basis, which shall acquire legal personality upon notification. They shall be allowed to engage in activities freely.”

The time has come to stop tolerating these violations of international law. International humanitarian law is very clear about everyone’s right to voluntarily join or choose not to join a union. 

Journalism, whether practiced by members of a trade union or not, is not a crime. The definition that a journalist in the Arab world is restricted to members of the national syndicate that is far from being independent or voluntary is unacceptable.

It is high time to scrap this draconian law and to stop looking for ways to define who is a journalist.


Daoud Kuttab is a board member of the Vienna-based International Press Institute and a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on twittercom/daoudkuttab


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