The only official syndicate representing journalists is the Ittihad al-suhufiyyin fi Suriya (Union of Journalists in Syria- SJU). As any other professional syndicate in the country, is controlled by the Baath Party and belongs to the General Federation of Trade Unions, a nominally independent grouping that the government uses to control union activity. The Union was established in 1974. Art 3 of its charter states that the union is “a professional syndicate believing in the goals of the nation in unity, freedom and socialism and is committed to accomplish these goals according to the decisions and directions of the Socialist Arab Baath Party.” Its 16 aims range from watchfulness over the state apparatus, to traditional trade union activities, such as pressing for satisfactory pay and conditions, or settling professional disputes. Journalists are state employees who are accountable to their employer, the government, for what they write.
Wages, promotion and pensions are thus based on political criteria rather than skill, ability or dedication. The law governing membership of the Union of Journalists carries additional checks on the practice of journalism. The most crucial stipulation of this law is probably Art 11, which requires the syndicate’s secretariat to prepare a list of all members of the syndicate and to classify them as working journalists, apprentices or associate journalists. The article also provides that a journalist does not have the right to practice his job as a journalist until his name is registered in the general list of syndicate members, which must be ratified by the Minister of Information. Most Syrian journalists used to join the SJU because legally any working journalist is required to join the union under Article 18 of the Syrian penal code.
In order to apply for membership of the syndicate, a journalist must fulfil numerous criteria and requires background checks and - in most cases - inside connections. Applicants must present a copy of their college degree, or provide a sample of no less than 20 published articles. They are required to have no legal blemishes or judicial judgments against them and, only after this process has been completed, a decision is then taken by the SJU. However, meeting the membership requirements does not guarantee the applicant the status of “working” member, with health insurance and full retirement benefits. Most applicants are listed as “training” members and have no such guarantees.
Any journalist traveling outside Syria is required to submit an endorsement letter from their employer to the Syrian Information Ministry. As a consequence, the possibility to travel for Syrian reporters totally depends on the minister’s approval But this does not entitle journalists to any form of protection, because even “working” members are not members of the SJU outside the country. Members who stop working in Syria automatically lose their membership.
Journalists working for private media outlets cannot join the syndicate, freelancers or journalists working as stringers for foreign agencies cannot join the SJU as “working” members before defining their status at the Ministry of Information.
Critics of the Union of Journalists point out that membership does not ensure protection, especially in case reporters or editors fail to support the government’s view. For example, in 2003, when the government shut down Al-Dumari, the country’s first independent satirical weekly founded by cartoonist Ali Farzat, the SJU not only failed to defend the magazine, but went after Farzat, who was then a member of the union, personally filing a legal suit with the Arab Writers Association to ban him from the syndicate itself.
The syndicate consists of the General Assembly, the Syndicate Council and the Executive Bureau, all of which are ultimately overseen by the Minister of Information. As is the case for all institutions in Syria, any change in the structure of the syndicate would question its relationship to the government. The General Assembly comprises all paid-up working member journalists and is the syndicate’s highest authority, charged with electing the Syndicate Council every four years, approving the budget and overseeing the syndicate’s internal organisation, except that the latter is not final until ratified by the Minister. Currently, according to the website of the Union, there are 1,704 “working” members and 639 apprentices. In October 2016, journalist Mousa Abdel Nour was appointed president of the SJU.
Opposition-controlled territories and Kurdish-majority zones
With the beginning of the uprising, many Syrian journalists opposing president al-Asad inside Syria and in exile in 2012 established the Damascus-based Rabitat al-suhufiyyin al-suriyyin (Syrian Journalists Association -, SJA), which the subsequent year was registered in France. The intent of the association is to contrast “the biased role” on the side of the regime played by the Union of Journalists. Inspired by freedom of expression and free access to information, the SJA declares its status as a democratic and independent association and its commitment to “the Syrian revolution’s goals and its calls for the freedom and dignity of the Syrian people.” Among its founding principles, the association promotes “equal opportunities to Syrian journalists from different ethnicities to write and reports news in their ethnic language such as Arabic, Kurdish, Assyrian, Turkmen and others”. Membership is open to all Syrian journalists and Palestinian journalists born in Syria working in print, broadcast and online journalism, whether they live inside or outside the country. In order to join the association, journalists need to provide a letter from their media outlets or obtain the approval of three founding members of the SJA. The association is mostly run by journalists that have left Syria in recent years and are currently based outside of the country. In September 2013, the Kurdistan Journalist Syndicate established its Syrian branch with the declared intent of defending Kurdish journalists both in Western Kurdistan and in Iraqi Kurdistan. The syndicate has also set up a code of honour for journalism.