As of today, Lebanon still lacks an association of journalists to protect and guarantee the rights of the people who cover the many varied roles associated with the news world. In an expression of the lively activism of the early modern Levantine press that had come into being in Beirut in the second half of the 20th century, dozens of reporters and local newspaper owners gathered in 1911 at the Grand Hotel Bassoul on the city’s sea-front to give birth to the "Journalists Commission" (al-Lajna as-sahafiyya), the first institution created to regulate relations among journalists, publishers and political authorities. After almost a century, Lebanese journalists maintain the fervour of their ancestors but still complain about the absence of official bodies to protect their rights and denounce violations. In this respect, the “Samir Kassir Foundation for the defence of media and cultural freedoms in the Arab World” (SKeyes, see below) is de facto the only organisation in Lebanon to criticize and repeatedly denounce the Press syndicates’ failure to effectively support the journalists. Over the last years, SKeyes has become increasingly more effective in reporting violations against journalists and press workers and in its awareness campaigns for freedom of press.
The 1962 Press Law formally organised journalists into two syndicates: the Lebanese Press Syndicate (LPS, Niqabat as-sahafa al-lubnaniyya, owners) and the Lebanese Press Editors Syndicate (LPES, Niqabat muharriri as-sahafa al-lubnaniyya, editors and reporters). A Higher Press Council was also created, along with other committees, to consider other issues pertinent to journalists, including the task of devising a retirement plan.
As established in its charter, the Press Editors Syndicate formally performs the functions of both a trade union protecting the interests of its members and an accountability body monitoring the conduct of journalists as well as providing guarantees for their professionalism and ethics. However, many reporters interviewed in Beirut in 2009 stated on condition of anonymity that both the Press and the Press Editors syndicates have for decades been two ineffectual institutions created merely in order to give the impression that Lebanon respects international press organisation standards. Around 75 percent of Lebanese journalists accredited by the Information Ministry do not appear as LPES members. The latter actually performs neither the function of a trade union nor that of an accountability institution. Moreover, in Beirut, officials of neither the LPS nor the LPES, when contacted were able to clearly describe the nature and the function of the Higher Press Council.
According to local observers, there is no doubt that today the two bodies continue to be dominated by the political and sectarian carve-up, with a Maronite heading the LPES and a Sunni as LPS’s chief. In 2012, Aouni al-Kaaki, owner and editor-in-chief of daily ash-Sharq newspaper, was voted LPS president, succeeding Mohammad Baalbaki who had served in the post for over three decades; and last year the Press Editors Syndicate re-elected Elias Aoun.
These organisations have proved to be weak and ineffective in their actions: the Press Syndicate must take decisions jointly with the owners’ syndicate. As the employees usually have conflicting interests with their employers, collective action is paralysed. Moreover, both the syndicates are usually led by constantly re-elected octogenarians clinging to power and derisively referred to by detractors as “Jurassic Park”. This system benefits only a handful of their executives and some faithful members.
Recently, when along with LBC and MTV, the An-Nahar newspaper announced the dismissal of a total of more than 150 employees, the LPES took almost a week to issue a weak statement to “express solidarity with the colleagues” without taking any firm and effective position against these measures.
Given the financial crisis newsrooms are now facing, a lot of workers of the media sector have been unpaid for long time. Many of them have remained silent and searched for other jobs to do at the same time, also because the Lebanese legal system offers few chances for journalists to fight for their rights. When asked if they had gone on strike, the majority said they had not. Another possibility for unpaid staff is to ask for mediation at the Ministry of Labour. The minister then summons the two parties to find common ground on the matter. Several journalists from Al-Mustaqbal and An-Nahar have begun such procedures. If mediation fails, journalists can sue their employers in court, but this procedure is obviously costly and it might take years to reach a final verdict. As a witness recalls, a small group of journalists once attempted to strike and block the broadcast of a programme on Future News. After a meeting with the management, to which only the editors were invited, the strike attempt was aborted without explanation.