Accusations fly as faction moves to restrict Journalists Syndicate membership

Once again, the Journalists Syndicate is wracked by internal feuds. The leaking of a draft bill with amendments to the law regulating the syndicate’s internal affairs has renewed the chasm between the syndicate board members, exposing their ideological differences.

The local press late last month released a detailed transcript of the bill, claiming it was prepared by the syndicate’s legislative committee for eventual discussion in Parliament. The news caused a commotion among syndicate board members, who complained that the content was never discussed internally and that they were not aware of this bill.

“I am for changing the law, but I am against any law that does not come out as the result of hearings where journalists deliberate openly and reach a consensus,” Abeer Saady, a syndicate undersecretary, wrote on her Facebook page last week.

Political undertones

This bill was leaked at a moment in which the country has no legislature to turn it into an actual law, and it remains unknown when the next Parliament will be elected. This unfit timing raised suspicions that the draft might be serving other political ends.

“The goal is to instigate a debate that would divert journalists’ attention away from other catastrophes that the Muslim Brotherhood is perpetrating,” alleges Gamal Fahmy, another syndicate undersecretary. He refers to controversial clauses that the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly is seeking to include in the constitution that are believed to threaten press freedom.

Fahmy goes on to explain that the bill’s author, Hatem Zakareya, the syndicate’s undersecretary for legislative affairs, is known for his close ties with the head of the syndicate, Mamdouh al-Wali — who, in turn, is allied with the Brothers.

Since the election of Wali as syndicate head in October 2011, tension has constantly erupted between him and the non-Islamist majority of the syndicate’s 12-member board.

Wali’s detractors have complained that he uses the syndicate to further the Brothers’ interests. On several occasions, the syndicate failed to consolidate a unified position due to this ideological feud.

Besides the ire over the content of the constitution, Fahmy alleges that the floating bill seeks to cover up an influx of cases filed against journalists for insulting President Mohamed Morsy.

Since his ascent to power, Morsy and his group have accused local media of seeking to harm the image of Islamist groups and serve the interests of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

“There are threats to journalists on a semi-daily basis from the ruling group,” says Fahmy, referring to the Brothers. “This was not even the case under Mubarak. … We have 600 legal complaints and cases accusing [journalists] of insulting the president.”

Zakareya denies allegations that he leaked the bill at this juncture to serve the Brothers’ political agenda by providing a distraction from debates over the constitution.

“The constitution is a fundamental matter for us and nobody can hide that,” says Zakareya, denying any ties with the Brotherhood. “I do not bother about the Brothers or anyone else. I do not benefit from the Brothers, and I did not benefit from Mubarak either. All I care about is the Journalists Syndicate and journalism.”

Zakareya, who heads the syndicate’s legislative committee, adds that this bill should come as no surprise, claiming that all the syndicate’s board members were aware that the association’s legislative committee had been revising the law since February.

The managing editor of the state-owned daily, Al-Akhbar, says this bill is not final, and that it will be discussed in hearing sessions before it is referred to the syndicate’s board and then to the syndicate’s general assembly.

A flawed bill

The Journalists Syndicate stands as the main entity in charge of accrediting journalists, defending their rights and freedoms, and promoting professional standards.

Leaving aside interpretations of the bill inspired by conspiracy theorists, Zakareya’s proposal had outraged many journalists for proposing tougher age and educational eligibility conditions to join the syndicate.

While the current law sets no age limit to potential journalists seeking to join the syndicate, the proposed bill says an applicant should be no older than 30. It also extends the probation period from one to two years for graduates of journalism schools.

Meanwhile, it makes it obligatory that a syndicate’s member have knowledge of a foreign language. Finally, it fails to stipulate clearly that online journalists have the right to join the syndicate.

Dozens of journalists rallied outside the syndicate Saturday to protest these clauses.

Ragaei al-Merghany, general coordinator of the National Coalition for Freedom of the Media, an alliance of human rights groups and journalists, and a former head of the syndicate’s admission committee, dismissed the age limit as “a joke” that does not correspond to reality.

“A syndicate is there to defend the journalist. As long as I practice journalism, I need this protection whether I am 20, 30 or 70,” he says.

He adds that such a condition would effectively deny thousands of journalists the right to join the syndicate.

A fresh graduate joins the local press at the age of 23, but it can then take several years of training and freelancing before they are able to secure a position with a permanent contract at a local paper, explains Merghany.

Without this permanent contract, a candidate cannot be admitted to the syndicate.

“By the time he secures this contract, the journalist is usually older than 30,” he says.

Merghany contends that the age condition aims to avoid any membership expansion, and hence would keep professional and financial benefits for the same small number of members.

Besides licensing and defending journalists’ rights, the syndicate grants its members a monthly stipend and ensures them several benefits, such as transportation discounts, healthcare and access to housing.

A need for change

Despite the protests elicited by the draft bill, there is consensus among journalists that the syndicate law, which dates back to 1970, needs to be modified.

“The current law is too old and has failed to keep up with changes that took place over the last 42 years,” says Merghany. “It was designed under a totalitarian order where we only had state-owned papers, but things have changed now.”

The current law refers to principles that have not been relevant since the rule of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

For example, it stipulates that the syndicate should spread socialist and nationalist thought among its members. It also mentions state institutions and positions from that era that no longer exist, such as the National Guidance Ministry and the socialist prosecutor.

Merghany recounts that there had been two attempts to change the syndicate law since the early 1990s, but both faced staunch resistance from journalists.

“All attempts to change it were made secretly and in a suspicious way,” he says, adding that the proposed changes aimed at tightening the grip of the state over the syndicate. “What the latest bill has in common with those two [previous bills] is the secrecy and the suspicion.”

He says the right way to effect change is from the bottom to the top.

“People’s problems should be aggregated first, and then a committee of legal experts and syndicate representatives should be formed to draft a bill. Then, this bill should be referred to the syndicate’s general assembly,” he argues.

Yet not everyone on the syndicate board believes the amendment of the 1970 law is a priority.

“We abstained from raising this matter under Mubarak’s fraudulent parliaments, but now we have worse parliaments,” says Fahmy, adding that the Islamist groups now dominating the country’s political life have demonstrated hostility to journalists.

Hence, a forthcoming Islamist-dominated parliament would block any calls to change the syndicate law for the better and promulgate a worse code, he predicts.

“In such an environment, how could we take the risk of trying to amend the syndicate law? We can live with the few provisions that need to be amended until the political environment improves,” says Fahmy.

The now-dissolved Parliament had an Islamist majority of more than 70 percent, and Islamist parties are expected to remain in the forefront in any upcoming elections.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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