Two votes decided by the lengthy roll-call process of member nations were the defining political events of the final two days of the International of Federation of Journalists’ World Congress.

One was on whether to accept the Iraqi Kurdish journalists’ union as a separate national delegation to the Iraqi journalists’ union. (The overwhelming decision was to treat them as one national delegation.)

The other was whether to call on the incoming executive committee to conduct a detailed review of the regional offices in Africa, Latin America and Asia Pacific. (The decision was to endorse the executive committee to do this. It was a narrow vote: 136 for, 123 against, seven abstentions.)

Now a week has passed since the end of the IFJ's 29th World Congress.

Delegates have returned home, constituent unions are back to the business of representing their members and the IFJ staff start the work of implementing our decisions.

Time to reflect on the central politics of congress.

Sitting as one of the five-member presidium was a privilege from which I could view the inner workings of congress. Thanks to my fellow presidium members, we were able to get through the entire business of congress by close on Friday, June 10.

I have already written about the first day of congress. The final two days were naturally the more intense politically, centred around votes for the new IFJ leadership.

This was my first congress, perhaps my last. Unfortunately like a lot of political rigmarole the real politics is often hidden under the surface.

I will try to lay these bare in the broadest of terms. By being broad, no doubt it will not be forensically accurate, so my apologies in advance if the broad brush means some details are overlooked.

Two main voting blocs

After four days in Angers it seems to me that two political blocs contested congress. This is only in the most general of senses. Within and between these blocs of more than 100 national delegations were sub-factions and alliances, of course. Some historical, some based on personality, others on political and policy positions.

The two broad blocs seemed to be as follows:

  • The first bloc around the NUJ (UK/Ireland), the French and Italian unions, many of the Arab unions and some of the sub-Saharan African unions.
  • The second bloc centred around the leadership of the European Federation of Journalists, with the German, Scandinavian, Australian, North American and many unions in the Asia-Pacific.

I am not trying to suggest these blocs are permanent or definitive. In fact I think the overall mood of congress at the end was that of unity.

The difference between them seems to be historical in nature, but also loosely around whether the IFJ is more or less centralised under the control of the executive committee, with the first bloc seeming to favour increased centralisation.

The best of times, the worst of times

Unfortunately it seemed that elements of both blocs tried to use undue pressure to lobby for votes. Some of this seemed to also dwell on whether or not continued funding for IFJ programs would be forthcoming, depending on how countries voted.

This was IFJ congress at its worst. It is vital that the allocation of funds to national and regional campaigns be completely depoliticised. The process must be transparent and above any accusation that such funding is used to ‘buy' votes.

At its best, beyond the wheeling and dealing, a genuine sense of international solidarity emerged from the congress. I am confident that the new executive committee will work with the new president and treasurer to build a stronger unity that has been lacking in the IFJ.


Australia’s role

Australia, with six votes, represented 1.7 per cent of those attending and voting. This seems small, but the IFJ congress only allows for a maximum of nine votes for each national delegation.

Team Australia (above, from left): Marcus Strom, Ben Butler, Paul Murphy, Alana Schetzer, Shauna Black, Michael Janda.

One delegate asked me: “How many delegates are there from Australia?” When I replied, “six”, she said “really? But you seem to be everywhere!”

When deciding whether to attend the congress and in what manner, MEAA’s national media section made a decision that we would not be wallflowers and indeed we were not, with every member of our delegation participating.

Our aims were to ensure clean voting, help establish good financial governance, prioritise gender equality and highlight the problems with the economic models for journalism.

On these measures, MEAA’s involvement was a success. The votes for IFJ leadership were uncontroversial; an independent finance commission was established; the gender council was ensconced in the constitution; and a MEAA amendment to a German motion of digitalisation of media highlights the role of Facebook and Google in separating the production of journalism from the advertising, which now tend to go to such aggregators.

Australia moved a successful amendment to the German motion on the formation of a think tank or working group on digitalisation of media. This means the working group will also review the concentration of both revenue and media power in a handful of enormous aggregators. It will report to executive committee on proposals for campaigns and lobbying.

New IFJ leadership elected

The primary interest is around the election for president and honorary treasurer. These two positions control the direction and purse strings of the organisation.

Phillip Leruth (below) from Belgium was elected president, defeating Celso Augusto Shroder from Brazil. The margin was just six votes.

The outgoing president, Jim Boumelha (below) from Britain, was elected honorary treasurer, defeating Juha Rekola from Finland by a margin of about 20 votes.

Australia’s Paul Murphy was elected to the executive committee as the uncontested representative of the Oceania region.

Both Jim Boumelha and Phillip Leruth made public commitments to ensure they work well together for the interests of IFJ unity. I trust they are true to this and that the executive committee insists on it.

Two critical votes

Apart from the election of the president, treasurer and other IFJ leaders for the next three years, there were two critical votes taken that go to the heart of the IFJ’s future direction.

Both these votes were both decided by roll call of all member unions.

Most votes of congress are taken by a show of voting cards and a call from the chairing person of the presidium. If the vote is close, the congress tellers can do a count of voting cards.

If delegates are still dissatisfied, eight member unions can call for a roll call. This involves calling out all the 100+ national delegations, from Angola to Zimbabwe and asking for them to call out their votes.

Tim Dawson from the NUJ in UK & Ireland and I chaired most of the sessions in turn. By chance, I was chairing both sessions where the votes were decided by roll call.

Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan

It was important for the integrity of congress that the voting was clear and clean. In Dublin three years ago, there were more votes for president than voting cards issued.

The presidium was insistent that this should not happen again. And thankfully it didn’t.

When I was looking through the votes for each delegation ahead of voting, I noticed that the Iraqi Kurdish union had five votes and the Iraqi union had eight votes. This gave unions from Iraq a combined 13 votes. Treated as a single national delegation, they would have had nine votes.

The presidium asked the scrutiny commission to investigate and report to congress as to whether Iraqi Kurdish union should be its own national delegation.

Its recommendation was to accept them as two delegations.

Many speakers voiced opposition and support.

The arguments in favour said that Iraqi Kurdistan had its own parliament, its own laws and its own language and so should be treated as a separate delegation.

Opponents said this was the case for many constituent parts of nation-states such as the Basque and Catalunya in Spain, or the Quebecqois in Canada.

At stake was the principle of unity, other delegates argued.

The Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish delegations were initially going to vote to support the scrutiny commission report. However, the Iraqi union changed its mind, taking many of the Arab delegations with it.

The scrutiny commission recommendation was overwhelmingly rejected, with only 58 votes in favour.

I think this was an important win for unity over national division.

This author’s personal opinion is that the Kurdish people have suffered historical injustice and should as a people have the right to self-determination. But that would of necessity involve a vote of Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

Carving off national entities would lead to increased national division in the IFJ above our common and higher goal of international solidarity.

Regional offices

Motion 19 from the NUJ in the UK and Ireland called for the incoming executive committee to initiate an urgent detailed review of the organisational and managerial structures of the regional offices.

Seemingly straightforward. However, many saw this as a top-down grab for power and against the principles of autonomy of organisation for the regions. The debate was polite, but hard fought.

The IFJ has regional offices in Buenos Aires, Sydney and Dakar.

The fault line in this debate seemed to be whether the regional offices power resided in congress or in the executive committee.

A roll call vote ensued. The unevenness of this vote in the regions was revealing.

To my mind the fact that some national delegations in regions voted in favour of the executive committee review and others against was, in effect, a subtle referendum or vote of confidence in the running of regional offices. It showed a lack of unanimity in all regions.

The close vote – 136 for, 123 against, seven abstentions (with some delegations absenting themselves from the congress hall) showed that this is a very delicate matter for the incoming executive to deal with.

Motion 24 from the Nordic Journalists Union was also passed. It calls for a membership working group to form this year to consider regional organisation.

These two motions combined should mean that there will be a collaborative process to review the regional offices. I imagine it is one with which MEAA will be actively involved.

Finance commission

A combined Swedish-Australia motion was passed that establishes a finance commission. Given that congress rejected the last two years financial statements as inadequate, oversight of IFJ finance is of high importance.

One of MEAA’s central goals at congress was to ensure probity and transparency in IFJ finances.

Ben Butler speaking on the finance commission.

An independent finance commission will have oversight of the finances of the IFJ. It will report back to congress independently of the honorary treasurer.

As an interim measure, until next congress, the finance commission will be elected by the executive committee on recommendation from the general-secretary, Anthony Bellanger.


Other motions

Most other motions passed were not controversial but point to the day-to-day work that our unions and the IFJ do. Broadly these covered the following areas:

  • Data retention, protection of sources and access to information
  • Press freedom
  • Journalists' safety
  • Gender equity
  • Ethics and anti-corruption
  • Trade union development and training

Working program

A working program was endorsed by congress with six key aims:

  • Organise and campaign in the interests of journalists
  • Build global solidarity
  • Lead the fight against impunity
  • Gender equality
  • Strengthen regional organisation
  • Good governance for the IFJ

Fin

The congress was exhausting for all involved. MEAA’s involvement was very worthwhile and our delegation has come away enthused to work for the aims of the IFJ and build MEAA’s role within it.

Ultimately, of course, that will be a decision of MEAA members through the national media section.

It was a great step forward that there was no irregularity in the voting. This clean voting at congress means that one of the Canadian journalists’ union is rejoining the IFJ. It suspended its membership after the poor voting methods in Dublin in 2013.

MEAA’s role in ensuring financial transparency and good governance for the IFJ was important. The new finance commission will need to work with incoming treasurer Jim Boumelha to ensure continued transparency in how IFJ funds are used and to ensure the allocation of campaign funding is depoliticised.

If you’ve managed to read this far, apologies for the length, but as I said at the start of my blog I wanted to give a transparent account of the workings of the IFJ congress.

If you have any questions regarding congress, please tweet me @strom_m.

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