Hariri Confiscates the Lebanese Press Syndicate

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FILE - A press conference held at the Lebanese Press Syndicate headquarters in Beirut. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Bou Haidar

By: Wafiq Qanso

Published Monday, January 12, 2015

The Future Movement is running in the Lebanese Press Syndicate elections against... itself. The elections have never caused controversy within the journalistic community as is the case today. Prompted by Saudi Arabia, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri insists on the nomination of a candidate for the position of head of syndicate. Many believe that the appointment of Hariri’s candidate to this post means the resounding demise of a syndicate that always fell short of expectations.

The Lebanese Press Syndicate, to quote an Arabic proverb, is like a “company without a janitor.” Preparations for the January 12 election of a new syndicate head have been riddled with disorganization, legal violations, the circumvention of internal systems, and conflicts of interest. The oldest and most acclaimed unions in Lebanon appears to be in a condition similar to its collapsing building. Like the other unions, the Press Syndicate was given away on the sectarian bazaar. The post was “delegated” to the Sunni sect, allegedly after an agreement between the ruling “troika” under the late President Elias Hrawi, while the chairmanship of the National Media Council was given to a Shiite and that of the Editors Syndicate to a Maronite.

Two candidates close to Hariri are competing for the role: Awni al-Kaaki, editor-in-chief of Ash-Sharq newspaper, and Salah Salim, editor-in-chief of Al-Liwaa newspaper. Al-Kaaki will likely be the winner upon receiving about 65 to 70 votes from 92 political publications included on the union election list, after the Hariri “operations room” paid the syndicate dues of a number of newspapers. Also, a number of newspapers opted to pay their dues to the union although they had refrained from doing so over the past years.

For example, Dar Assayad, which has 19 licences, including three for political publications, paid all its dues, as did Minister Nouhad Mashnouk (“al-Ra’id” licence) and MP Bassem al-Sabaa (“al-Huda” licence). Within days, the syndicate’s fund received late payments it has demanded for years to no avail, amounting to some 50 million Lebanese Lira ($33,000). The same “operations room” contacted publications that hold licences, asking them to replace their representatives in the syndicate who might not vote for Hariri’s candidate.

Indeed, a number of publications replaced their representatives in the syndicate. A case in point is journalist Paula Yacoubian (“al-Majalis al-Musawwara” licensee), who withdrew the name of journalist Zulfiqar Qubaissi as managing editor and listed herself as owner and managing editor. The “National Publications” (“Lisan al-Hal” licence, owned by businessman Roger Edde) replaced the name of syndicate member Hussein Qutaish as managing editor with journalist Philip Abi Akl, who will likely be a candidate on al-Kaaki’s list, along with colleagues George Bashir, Bassam Afifi, and others.

The elections bazaar opened months before the end of the mandate of 95-year-old Mohammad Baalbaki, who served as head of the syndicate for 33 consecutive years, when it became clear that the latter was considering retirement due to his old age. By virtue of the new sectarian “convention,” it was clear that the new head would be a Sunni, and thus close to Hariri, although the post was previously held by persons from different sects.

Attempts to test the waters began. Some offered the position to Mohammed Sammak, the secretary-general of the Christian-Muslim Dialogue Committee, who is a figure acceptable to all parties, but he declined the offer. The attention shifted towards Salam, who is also close to Hariri and is an accepted figure known for his moderation and openness. This was followed by the proposition of Al-Kaki’s name, who promoted the idea that “Saad Hariri should name the syndicate head because the post belongs to the Sunnis.”

It appears that Hariri received a “revelation” from Riyadh to nominate al-Kaaki. In one of his editorials, al-Kaaki describes Saudi Arabia as the “land of faith” and the ”mainstay, pillar, and bastion of Arabism,” Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz as the “first leader of Muslims,” and the al-Khalifa family as “great leaders like King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz and President Gamal Abdel Nasser.”

What’s behind al-Kaaki’s nomination?

Hariri’s support for the nomination of al-Kaaki caused resentment within March 14 circles and the Future Movement. According to sources, the nomination came as a result of “Beiruti considerations” and fears of the revival of the “Salam household” following Tammam Salam’s appointment as prime minister. Other sources said that the nomination is a reward by Hariri and Saudi Arabia for al-Kaaki’s position on the conflict between the Future Movement and Dar al-Fatwa, during the mandate of former Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani.

Al-Kaaki had launched a fierce campaign in his newspaper against Qabbani and his “violations, offenses, theft, and corruption.” He accused him of “exploiting Dar al-Fatwa for his own goals” and “driving a wedge between the Sunnis,” as opposed to the mediation undertaken by Salam after the Egyptian initiative, which ensured an “honorable” exit for the former Mufti of Dar al-Fatwa.

Al-Akhbar learned that leaders of the Future Movement tried to persuade Hariri to withdraw his support for al-Kaaki in favor of Salam, but he rejected all mediations and upheld the nomination of Ash-Sharq’s editor-in-chief, maintaining that “his loyalty to the Future Movement and Saudi Arabia is firmer than that of others.”

According to informed sources, MP Bahia Hariri (who is on good terms with Salam) expressed displeasure over al-Kaaki’s nomination, and so did former President Amin Gemayel. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has reportedly told visitors that “the issue is up to Saad,” although he is thought to be behind al-Kaaki’s nomination, especially since he was not pleased with Salam’s role in resolving the Dar al-Fatwa crisis.

The disapproval over al-Kaaki’s nomination can be attributed to his controversial character. Although he owns a political publication (Ash-Sharq), al-Kaaki acquired fame through the tabloid press, namely “Nadine” magazine, of which he is editor-in-chief. Through “Nadine,” he was able to build strong relationships with princes and sheiks from the Gulf, but he also became involved in the scandals and problems of artists.

Al-Kaaki’s name is often mentioned in disputes involving entertainers – who see him as a “spiritual father” – such as the row between Roula Yamout and her half-sister Haifa Wehbe, the rumored marriage of Melhem Barakat and Najwa Karam, the story that the “beautiful actress Naya wore a veil,” and the exchange of lawsuits with Ragheb Alama. His name also appeared on the list of beneficiaries of $3 million in the “City Bank” scandal.

Shifting alliances

Up until the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, al-Kaaki was referred to as a “journalist who is close to Syria,” and he was known to have close relations with Syrian officers. “If you lost him, you would find him in the lobby of Sheraton Hotel in Damascus,” says one of his acquaintances. His relationship with Damascus goes back to the time of his father, journalist Khayri al-Kaaki, who – along with Lebanese politicians and journalists – was “friends” with Abdel Hamid Sarraj, the military intelligence strongman during the era of Egyptian-Syrian unity, and who later served as interior minister.

“They used to travel to Damascus in the winter and Bloudan in the summer to gain the approval of Sultan Sarraj... Then they would visit the Egyptian ambassador in Damascus and return to Abdel Hamid Ghaleb, the Egyptian ambassador in Beirut,” says Syrian writer Ghassan Zakaria in his book, “The Red Sultan.” Al-Kaaki benefited from these ties to advance his newspaper, Ash-Sharq, whether through the use of Syrian paper or subscriptions paid by Syrian official institutions.

Al-Kaaki was not known to be among the few journalists in the inner circle of the late Prime Minister Hariri during the latter’s heyday. However, he had developed a close relationship with Hariri’s deceased bodyguard Yahya al-Arab (Abu Tariq). After February 14, 2005, with the decline of Syrian influence in Lebanon, al-Kaaki, like many others, turned against his former “friends.” Ever since, a picture of the late President Hariri has headed the first page of Ash-Sharq newspaper.

After the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in the Spring of 2011, al-Kaaki’s editorials were marked by a sharp and sectarian tone. He once described the Syrian army as “Alawites” and the residents of Syrian cities as “Sunnis.” In one of his editorials, he complained to the king of Saudi Arabia about “the suffering of the Sunni people in Lebanon due to the fierce attack against them,” and the “dubious Persian-Iranian-Shiite project, which aims to convert the people of the region into Shiites based on the velayat-e faqih [Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists] doctrine.”

Editors Syndicate

The journalistic community received the news of al-Kaaki’s nomination with great resentment, perhaps because of his unwavering loyalty to the Future Movement and for burning all bridges with Hariri’s opponents. Salam, on the other hand, has maintained an equal distance from various political forces and the freedom to communicate with all of them. This should be a precondition for the head of a syndicate that includes various parties and lines, and who is expected to represent national rather than partisan interests.

There are objections to the ambiguous interrelationship between the Press Syndicate and Editors Syndicate due to the conflict of interests between the two bodies, since the first represents newspaper owners and the second represents the employees of newspapers. However, the greatest concern is that al-Kaaki’s nomination will lead to a further overlap of roles, but this time, between the Press Syndicate and the Artists Union.

Non-practicing journalists circumventing the law

  • The Press Syndicate Council consists of 18 members: 12 members for daily political publications; 5 for non-daily political publications; and one for non-political publications and news agencies. The number of political publications, both daily and non-daily, which are represented by a total of 17 members, do not number more than 110 (92 of which have voting rights), while only one member represents non-political publications, which number about 2000, of which 205 are entitled to vote.
  • The large number of members of the Press Syndicate Council is not justified when compared to the trade unions of other liberal professions. While the Press Syndicate Council has 17 members representing 110 political publications (most of which are not in circulation), the Bar Association Council in Beirut, for example, has only 12 members representing more than 10,000 lawyers.
  • The Press Syndicate Council has members who are “non-practicing” journalists. Journalists are defined as those who have taken up journalism as a profession and their source of livelihood (Article 10 of the press law). Journalism here includes “writing, revising, and supplying news, translations, investigations, and other press materials for publications” (Article 11). In truth, however, many members of the Council do not engage in this work, including the head of the syndicate, his deputy, and many members of the Council.
  • Out of 110 entities with licenses for political publication, some of which have not published in decades, only 14 newspapers are actually publishing. This despite the fact that Article 29 of the press law stipulates, “The minister of guidance, news, and tourism (i.e. the minister of information) must revoke the license of a publication two weeks after notifying it (...) if it fails to publish within a full six months from the date of granting the license,” or “if it stops publishing for three consecutive months.” However, though some newspapers have not been published for decades, no information minister has exercised this right.
  • Some license holders who own publications that are not publishing circumvent the law by printing the name of their publication on other publications that do publish, and then sending copies of them to the Ministry of Information periodically as evidence of their continued publication.
  • The conditions the managing editor of any publication must satisfy (Article 23 of the press law) include “actually practicing their work in the publication of which they are the managing editor,” and to be a resident of the same location the publication is published from; “if they are absent for three consecutive months, the owner of the publication or their representative must appoint another managing editor to replace them.”
  • While managing editors in many publications, especially non-political ones, work for other publications while receiving monthly wages for allowing their names to be used, political publications not in circulation involve no real work or function for such individuals.
  • As foreign newspapers are allowed to publish under local licenses, this allows these newspapers to have representatives in the syndicate’s general assembly, and, accordingly, to vote in the election for members of the Syndicate Council. Prominent examples include Saudi newspapers Al-Hayat and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.

Rampant unprofessionalism

The press law designates the minister of information as “the minister of guidance, news, and tourism,” which is enough to give you an idea of the obsoleteness of the law. Actual practice points to many irregularities and norms that seem to supersede the law.

The syndicate has become a chaotic institution where rival interests and unprofessionalism are rampant. It is not uncommon for the head of the syndicate to sign contradictory decisions from one day to the next, for example. Perhaps an examination of the preparations for the syndicate elections today, January 12, can provide an overview of the situation:

A few months before the term of the Press Syndicate Council expires, a registration committee was formed in accordance with Article 97 of the press law and articles 12, 13, and 14 of the Lebanese Press Union bylaws. The committee consisted of the president of the Lebanese Press Union (Mohammad Baalbaki) and deputy president of the union (Elias Aoun). Its stated purpose is to “organize [electoral] tables… within six months at most or three months at least before the press syndicate elections.”

On September 16, the committee finished preparing the tables (which include journalists registered in the Press Syndicate and the Editors Syndicate). Around 1,100 names from the Editors Syndicate and 100 owners of political newspapers were included.

Based on the provisions of the Lebanese Press Union’s bylaws and the bylaws of the syndicate, which require finishing the electoral tables (covering political publications that pay their contributions and have a right to vote in the elections for the Press Syndicate Council) “three weeks prior to the elections” (Article 17 of the bylaws), the electoral table was approved officially and signed by the head of the committee (Baalbaki), its secretary (Aoun), and its comptroller (council member Hussein Qutaish).

The table included the names of 100 publications with voting rights, and was published on the syndicate’s website on November 17, 2014. Preparing the table should be the purview of the electoral office, comprising the head of the syndicate, his deputy, the secretary, and the treasurer, who are all supposed to sign it. However, oddly enough, the syndicate council convened on November 21 with a legal quorum present, and decided to call the general assembly to meet and elect a new council for the syndicate on December 8, specifying deadlines for submitting candidacies.

During the general assembly meeting on November 28, in a second session intended to approve the syndicate’s budget (no budget had been passed in the previous three years), lawyer Thaer Karam, one of the heirs of former syndicate president Melhem Karam, contested the names of the representatives of seven publications owned by the late president, whom Karam named as Karma and Karam Karam. Furthermore, some members of the syndicate council objected to the fact that the electoral table was issued by a party other than the electoral office. The elections were subsequently postponed.

On December 3, 2014, the syndicate council held an extraordinary meeting (chaired by the syndicate president who signed the previous electoral table). They decided to postpone the elections “because of objections to the electoral table.” The meeting also decided to “charge the electoral office with the task of studying objections, before declaring the final electoral table and receiving candidatures again.”

Then on December 24, 2014, the electoral office approved an amended table of the publications with voting rights in the election, which was scheduled for January 12, 2015. A notice to this effect was posted on the syndicate’s website.

It is clear from all the above that a series of legal inaccuracies and irregularities had been involved in the preparation for the elections, including the facts that:

  • The term of the current syndicate, elected on 8/12/2011, ended on 8/12/2014, which means that everything issued by it and its members afterwards is invalid.
  • Article 80 of the press law of 1962 stipulates that elections should be held in December. The election, however, will take place in January.
  • Article 27 of the bylaws stipulates that when the general assembly convenes with an absolute majority of its members, in an ordinary non-electoral session, it has the right to discuss any matter related to the syndicate without adhering to the agenda. However, the session held on November 28, 2014 was not attended by an absolute majority, and yet it discussed postponing the election, contrary to the agenda.
  • The electoral office declared the new table of the elections on December 24, two days after the three-week deadline that should separate the declaration of the table and the election date. This is while bearing in mind that the table published on the syndicate’s website is dated December 22.
  • Even after the publication of the new table on the website, new names were added and others were redacted. For example, the box accorded to the representative of license-holder “Jadid” did not contain any name in the table. Al-Akhbar learned that the name Iyad Dirani was added afterwards. Likewise, Zulfiqar Qubaissi replaced Ali al-Amin representing the Rabitat al-Sharqiya publication, while the publication Sabah al-Kheir was removed from the list because of a dispute between its heirs. The name Talal Hatou was added as the managing editor of Al-Awasef instead of Khodr Majed, while Majed replaced Hatoum as managing editor of Zaman. Keep in mind that in accordance with Article 17 of the bylaws, “no amendment may be made to the table except in cases of extreme necessity.”
  • No fewer than 20 publications that are not in circulation appointed sham editors or managing editors in the past few weeks (Article 23 of the press law states that managing editors must be actually working in the publications they are managing).
  • Some publications put forward civil servants (university professors, heads of departments, and employees of the Central Bank) as representatives, which is inconsistent with the bylaws.
  • Managing editors were appointed to replace others in the past few weeks without following protocol and notifying the MInistry of Information.
  • There are uncertainties regarding the names of a large number of managing editors, such as representatives of heirs, or representatives of companies using vaguely worded appointment letters that fail to explicitly state who gave them the appointments, and which do not enclose commercial registration or declaration documents, as protocol requires.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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