View from the top

"IT WOULD BE an enormous privilege for you to be a member of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Congress Presidium" Jim Boumelha (then IFJ president) whispered in my ear. "Basically it means that you are completely in charge of congress, you could really make a difference".

I sensed that his flattery was delivered with purpose, but I was seduced by his warm words. So it was that two minutes after the start of business at a conference of nearly 350 journalists, I was in the middle of the stage attempting to conduct proceedings. It took place in Angers, France on 7 - 10 June 2016. I had never before attended one of these gatherings, much less studied how it undertakes its business.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

Happily, I was not alone. The Presidium consists of five members, who share the responsibilities of managing the conference. I was in the company of Anna Del Freco (Italy), Patrick Kamenka (France), Salah Sidig (Sudan) and Marcus Strom (Australia). A coin toss had landed me in the opening chair.

The days that followed were challenging. As well as conducting the rolling agenda, the Presidium was required to: issue judgements on challenges to the rules; chivvy the work of commissions considering finance, elections and the order of conference business; and try to settle disputes between disputatious factions. We applied ourselves and were fortunate that what talents we had were largely complimentary. Apparently this has not always been the case at IFJ congresses.

As the five-day gathering lumbered forwards, there were times when the purpose of such a vast, unruly convention seemed unclear - particularly when viewed from the eye of the storm. Operating in three languages, peopled entirely by trades unionists with long experience of "asserting themselves" and containing numerous competing factions, descent into chaos was an ever-present threat.

Jim Boumelha; © Tim Dawson

Outgoing IFJ President Jim Boumelha addresses Congress

Despite this, we hacked our way through the order paper, tweaking the constitution, creating a financial oversight commission and deciding to review the work of the IFJ's regional offices. Like resolutions at many conferences, lots were adopted by broad acclaim. A few were highly contentious. The entrails of the previous congress three years ago, for example, at which budgetary and electoral oversight was clearly wanting, was the subject of numerous arguments. These generated more heat than light.

As my presidium colleagues and I tried to retain momentum, it was hard not to wonder at the point of it all? Indeed, a senior IFJ official chose this moment to murmur in my direction that the convention itself was not the most important purpose of the gathering. What really mattered, he said, was the elections to the executive committee.

This was in my thoughts as we returned to the melee. Then, as the dispute over one particular vote intensified, a shout came from the back of the hall: "roll call".

I had read the Congress standing orders before taking the chair, so knew that this provision existed. I could not quite believe that it was a device that was ever actually deployed. Most decisions were made by show of voting cards. The first call was the chair's estimate of delegate's feelings. If this was contested, tellers were summoned to count the votes and only then, if some delegates remained unhappy, could a roll call could be invoked.

The hall doors were sealed and the chair started calling out names of nations with affiliated unions. Delegation leaders replied with their entitlement and how they cast their vote.

Australia - "Six votes against"
Austria - "Six votes against"
Azerbaijan - "Not in the hall"

Some countries split their votes after hasty, obviously divided, meetings. There were occasional challenges to voting entitlements. In countries with more than one journalists' union, members from several organisations had to quickly decide how to act.

The call continued.

Iceland - "Two votes against"
India - "Nine votes for"
Indonesia - "Four votes against"

It was around this point that I started to ponder the enormity of what I was witnessing. The delegates before me were drawn from the four corners of the world. Our cultures could scarcely be more diverse. Adherents of every major religion and a great many minor ones sat among colleagues whose political affiliations were every bit as varied. Despite this, it was our bonds and kinship that were most visible. Common belief that journalism is vital for democracy to flourish and that a free media is best underpinned by vigorous trades unions had drawn us together.

Peru - "Four votes for"
Philippines - "Four votes for"
Poland - "Five votes for"

Among us were presidents, general secretaries, lead negotiators and principal organisers. Some wore national dress, others arrived with their own translators. A few delegations exchanged gifts. Others were clearly building alliances to take on multinational employers. The range of skin tones, head shapes and hair styles resembled an encyclopaedia of ethnicity, and yet our similarities seemed more important than our differences.

The votes were still being patiently recorded, but everyone sat tight, until, nearly half an hour after we began, the end was upon us.

Venezuela - "Three votes for"
Yemen - "Three votes for"
Zimbabwe - "Not in the hall".

It was a hotly-contested vote. Totting it up, checking and re-checking took a further few minutes. In the end, however, despite vocally expressed displeasure from those who did not get their way, the result mattered far less than the fact that the vote had been taken at all.

That so many journalists from around the world were willing to come together for the purpose of mutual support seems, on reflection, little short of miraculous. That its product is a professionally-staffed organisation that is able to intervene - often with enormous effectiveness - when journalists are arrested, when press freedom is threatened and when workers are abused is something for which we should all be grateful.

Was it worth several days unpaid immersion in meeting management, intense backstage diplomacy and on-the-fly textual revision? Yes.

In all probability, I will never again sit at the apex of the world's journalistic organisations, but to have have seen the view from that vantage point just once is quite an experience. Indeed, as Jim Boumelha had promised in the first place, it was an enormous privilege. To him, the IFJ and all the delegates who were kind about my occasionally hapless efforts to retain order, I offer my profound thanks.

Coming in from the cold

Last rites were performed over one of the few remaining institutional vestiges of the Cold War at the opening session of IFJ Congress. Kaarle Nordenstreng from Finland offered up the shadowy fragments of the International Organisation of Journalists (IOJ) to be incorporated within the body of the IFJ. Doing so closed a fissure dating back nearly 65 years.

The IOJ was the arguable inheritor of the Fédération International des Journalistes, the first journalists' unions' international, of which the NUJ was among the founders in 1926. If fell into abeyance during the second world war. Then, when trades unions reasserted themselves in war-ravaged Europe, two internationals sprang up - the Prague-based IOJ in 1946 on one side of the Iron Curtain and on the other, in 1952, the Brussels-based IFJ.

In the ensuing years both internationals did purposeful work. Some national unions aligned themselves squarely with East or West, others were members of both. There was occasional co-operation and there were also points of significant friction. Nojdenstreng, who was the IOJ's president between 1976 and 1990 has subsequently admitted that the Kremlin was heavily involved in his organisation's decision-making.

Post-1990, however, like most Soviet-era institutions, atrophy set in. The IOJ's last congress took place in 1995, and the officers elected at that meeting have nominally held office ever since.

Mystery surrounds some aspects of the organisation's demise, most notably the fate of its valuable property portfolio? The IOJ is by no means the only communist bloc organisation about which such questions await answers. Notwithstanding that, in recent years discreet diplomatic efforts have steered those left holding the IOJ's flag to bring the schism to an end with honour.

It was the successful conclusion of these efforts that Nordenstreng was in town to report. "We are witnessing a close in the page of history", he said. Doing so, he reviewed some of the organisation's highlights - his address to the General Assembly of the United Nations among them. The moment of unity and peace that followed felt more solemn and meaningful that I would have expected. More than quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall, journalists' organisations had formally moved on from their little Cold War battlefield.

Calm was a shot-lived, however. Abdulwaheed Odusile, the combative President of the Nigerian Union of Journalists, hurried up up to the rostrum.

"In Nigeria we benefitted very generously from the IOJ. The IFJ must learn the lesson of the IOJ and look to doing something similar. What exactly is going for the IFJ? There are lots of things that the IFJ could be doing in my country if it followed the example of the IOJ".

It was a reminder that for all the pain caused by the bi-polar world that existed for 45 years after the second world war, there were beneficiaries on both sides. Western and Eastern bloc countries competed to build alliances all over the third world - often by applying very considerable largesse. Edifying it was not, but for the beneficiaries it often resulted in useful facilities where there might have been none.

Indeed, writers like Eric Hobsbawm ("Goodbye to all that", Marxism Today, October 1990) have argued that it was the threat of communism that propelled the creation of generous social democratic states throughout the west.

It is no reason to hope for the world divided again - but it is a reminder to workers that demanding our peace dividend is ongoing work.

Memories are not enough

Highlighting the risks faced by journalists and campaigning against impunity for those who seek to harm them is arguably the IFJ's signature campaign. Since 1990 the Federation has maintained an annual "killed list" tracking the number of media workers who die as a result of their work each year. At the time of writing, this grim tally has reached nearly 2300 in the ensuing quarter century.

It seemed natural to mark the killing of photojournalist Camille Lepage, whose home town, Angers, played host to the Congress. Lepage died in the Central African Republic in 2014 while covering the conflict in that country. Delegates carried white roses from the convention centre to the town's library where tributes were paid and memories shared. An exhibition of her works in the Convention centre and also at the library left you in no doubt of her extraordinary talent nor what a loss she was to our trade.

Hopefully solidarity gestures of this kind provide some comfort for grieving family and friends. More important, though, is to show that, as journalists, we stand together to demand the right for our work to be treated with respect and our safety to be a matter of general responsibility.