The Press Syndicate will host a general assembly on Friday to vote for a new syndicate head and six council members.
With nearly 10,000 members eligible to vote, the assembly is only considered legitimate with an attendance of over 50%, a target that has been difficult to achieve in past elections. In case of a shortage, a second assembly will be called on 17 March with a requirement of 25% of members.
Current head of the syndicate Yehia Qallash told Daily News Egypt on Wednesday that “given the many challenges we are facing and the tasks awaiting new board members, the elections are crucial, as they will determine the direction in which we will head.” He added that he has hope in the “nearly 5,000 journalists who attended the emergency general assembly he convened on 4 May 2016.”
Candidates described the competition as “fierce”, given the circumstances and challenges surrounding the syndicate. On one hand, the past few years have been marked by increasing problems related to the professional, economic, and social rights of journalists. A crackdown on freedom of speech, censorship, and the imprisonment of journalists have been hindering the syndicate’s quest for freedom of the press.
Moreover, the unprecedented historical assault on the syndicate, when a police raid resulted in the arrest of two journalists, and the trial of syndicate leaders heavily impacted current elections.
“The battle for the position of the head is strong, given the trial. On the bright side, I believe this will mobilise more journalists to attend the general assembly,” said Ayman Eissa, a candidate for one of the council seats. “On the other hand, there is going to be deep polarisation,” he added.
Among the young candidates seeking a position on the council is journalist Amr Badr, one of the two journalists whose arrest triggered the syndicate’s crisis. “The situation is tense. Elections combine syndical issues with politics. Hopefully this high competition will turn out to be beneficial to the wellbeing of journalists,” Badr said.
As for candidate Shaimaa Mostafa, who is running for a council seat, she thinks that despite tensions, there is opportunity as the competition brought in “a lot of new faces.”
“Rights and freedoms” is a theme that featured in many candidates’ campaigns, including the two main adversaries for the position, Qallash and Abdel Mohsen Salama, as well as candidates running for council seats.
Although the two didn’t explicitly exchange accusations, Qallash’s public statements suggested that there were “attempts by those who stormed the syndicate to take over the elections.”
On the other hand, Salama had expressed support for the syndicate leaders on trial but blamed them for failing to properly manage the crisis and perform their syndical roles, according to press reports.
Financial rights of member journalists, such as salaries and the syndicate’s allowances, come on top of problems facing the press community, according to Mostafa, an economics journalist and member of the syndicate’s solidarity fund.
Some candidates, such as Salama, have included in their electoral campaigns promises to increase allowances, while many candidates highlighted the need of reforming the salary structure. According to Qallash, salaries have already entered the phase of negotiation with the state.
“Journalists’ salaries are in dire conditions, given the country’s economic crisis,” argued Badr. He suggested three possible solutions: the first is to have allowances increase with a steady percentage; the second concerns new regulations for salaries to update regulations implemented since 1979; and the final is to negotiate with the state means of obtaining the legal minimum wage for journalists.
A second priority mentioned by the candidates was the abolishment of imprisoning journalists on grounds of self-expression. “I am strictly against the jailing of journalists for expressing themselves,” said Mostafa. “The new council will have a role in preparing a law that organises crimes of publishing, according to a code of conduct,” she stated.
To Eissa, a media code of ethics is essential. “We can no longer accept laws that include vague red lines for the freedom of the press, such as those about national security and similar exceptions.”
He argued that press violations should be faced by a gradual disciplinary punishment by the concerned media and press councils according to the code of conduct. “There could be heavy fines not only for journalists, but for the news outlet itself,” he said. “It will be the role of the new councils under formation to address the government with the code of conduct initiative and, in return, negotiate the abolishment of jail penalties.”
This brings us to talks about new legislations needed to protect freedom of the press, or as Qallash put it, “constitutional texts must be translated into effective laws.”
Badr, who spent nearly four months in detention on accusations of incitement against the state for publicly decrying the Egyptian-Saudi maritime border agreement, agreed that current practices do not match the Constitution. “Journalists are still imprisoned to date. Only 12 countries in the world still apply such a penalty,” he said.
But Badr believes the demand for the annulment of journalists’ imprisonment is going to be a struggle that will require strong pressure on the government by members of the syndicate’s council, largely backed up by members of the general assembly.
A former draft that was prepared by the press community and experts—in accordance with the government—and that unified media and press laws, had been set aside by the parliament.
The law had brought a new perspective to press freedom guarantees by banning the detention of journalists for publishing crimes and removing several practices pressuring journalists and hindering their work.
“The law seems to have been manipulated so far,” commented Qallash. “We will continue to pursue it, but with a different approach to have it passed,” he added. According to him, new legislations must aim to develop and restructure the media and press.
A broad range of other issues on candidates’ agendas include professional training for journalists, the situation of journalists working in publications that stopped printing, arbitrary firing, electronic journalism, and services related to healthcare and housing.
This also comes as the syndicate’s leaders’ trial is still ongoing. An appeals court is looking into a former two-year prison term against Qallash and two of his deputies—running in the elections—on 25 March.