Egypt's Press Syndicate, and the Plight of Online Journalists

Tuesday 4 April 201708:57 am
After years of working for the independent news website, AlBawabh News, Egyptian journalist Ahmed Fathallah was fired in August 2016, along with about 40 of his colleagues, amid new directives by the website’s management to cut costs. Turning to the only institution that they believed might be able to secure their rights, Fathallah, along with his colleagues, sought assistance from the Egyptian Press Syndicate, to attempts to obtain their end-of-service benefits. However, they were met at first by a security guard at the gates of the historic syndicate headquarters in Downtown Cairo, who would not allow them inside the building. They would learn that entry to the syndicate was a privilege reserved for members only, while the privilege of syndicate membership was contingent on a series of complicated bureaucratic measures. INSIDE_Egypt-Online-Journalists-keatl-Flickr Fathallah and his colleagues went on to contact members of the syndicate’s board, only to learn that online journalists are not permitted to join the syndicate. They were nonetheless met with promises that the syndicate would attempt to resolve their issue. “I knew they were empty promises. The syndicate does not recognize us [as journalists]. What was the likelihood that a syndicate that we are not permitted to enter will take action to support us?” Fathallah tells Raseef22. [h2]The Reality of Being an Online Journalist in Egypt[/h2] Over the past two years, hundreds of Egyptian journalists have been sacked from numerous news websites, including AlBawabh News, DotMsr, Al-Masry Al-Youm, Al-Shorouk, and others. Management boards pointed to financial constraints and economic conditions to justify the decisions, echoing similar conditions worldwide. However, in Egypt, this trend comes with the notable difference that Egyptian journalists, and in particular online journalists, lack the representation and the channels to seek their termination rights, as well as other rights. To begin with, the laws governing syndicate membership are convoluted and contradictory. In order to apply for syndicate membership, a journalist must have three years of experience working for a national or private printed newspaper, owned by Egyptian joint-stock companies that are licensed to publish newspapers, according to the syndicate by-laws approved by former syndicate head Yehia Qalash. Yet, Egyptian law simultaneously stipulates that journalists are not officially recognized as such unless they are members of the syndicate. The syndicate also requires journalists to be insured, with an official contract with the newspaper—seemingly a common-sense requirement; however, in Egypt, many publications withhold the right to contract for employees until they have been employed there for a certain amount of time. Meanwhile, journalists do not have a choice but to accept the conditions of work due to the lack of opportunities. [h2]Political Motives[/h2] In light of lack of syndicate representation, online journalists are left exposed to state harassment and other risks for practicing without a license—although, in recent times, syndicate membership has been no guarantee for protection. Recently, the former head of the syndicate having recently been detained and handed a one-year suspended prison sentence, amid a crackdown on the institution. The Egyptian government has nonetheless exploited the lack of official recognition for online establishments to restrict the scope of their coverage. Journalists have been barred from the coverage of events as they are not syndicate members. In one notorious instance, Sinai-based Al-Masry Al-Youm online reporter Ahmed Abu Dar’aa was arrested in 2013, amid ongoing efforts to contain the growing insurgency in the north of the peninsula. Abu Dar’aa faced military trial for offering a narrative in the insurgency that countered that presented by a state. During this crisis, the military spokesperson at the time, Ahmed Ali, stated that Abu Dar’aa is not a member in the syndicate, and therefore not a journalist. Moreover, in 2015, a law was passed, stipulating enormous fines for journalists for any reporting that deviates the state account with regards to issues relating to state security. [h2]‘The Syndicate Does not Represent Me’[/h2] “I do not feel that the Press Syndicate represents me,” Mohamed*, also a journalist, tells Raseef22. He was employed for two and half years with independent news website DotMsr, before he was let go. Mohamed recounts the story of the day he knew he was fired last July. Without any previous notice, business tycoon and media mogul Ahmed Abou Hashima had acquired the company. Days later, Mohamed learned that 90 employees would be let go, himself among them. “No one knew the reason, we all worked hard. The management told us that we would only be compensated for 19 work days following our termination,” Mohamed explains. Mohamed and his colleagues began a sit-in at the office. They tried to seek out help from the syndicate to secure their rights, which include the equivalent of two months’ salary for each year employed at the website, as well as the full salary of the month of termination. Though two delegates from the syndicate agreed to represent them, they could not secure more than one month’s salary. The argument was that Mohamed and his colleagues did not have contracts in a printed newspaper, and the syndicate could not secure any further rights. They would have to before court, without syndicate representation. The journalists had no choice but to accept the settlement. “One of the delegates asked to take a picture with us. It seemed like a publicity stunt portraying the syndicate as having resolved the solution. We refused, but the delegate took a picture with the editor-in-chief, who praised the syndicate’s role in resolving the crisis,” Mohamed notes. Moreover, with the election of Abdel Mohsen Salama—veteran journalist and former Managing Editor of state mouthpiece Al-Ahram—as head of the syndicate this month, many have predicted that restrictions on the profession will only exacerbate. [h2]Calls for an Updated Syndicate Law[/h2] Abdul Rahman Agha, an Egyptian journalist and member of the syndicate’s General Assembly, met with Raseef22 at the lobby of the Press Syndicate. Agha tells Raseef22 while holding his cup of coffee, “The Press Syndicate’s law is old, has never been rewritten, and is out of sync with the demands of the profession.” Agha contends that since the revolution in January 2011, up until the last elections, the syndicate’s board members have failed to institute any changes. Concerned primarily with self-interest, and not battling for the rights of young journalists, many have engaged in peripheral battles for their own gain, rather than that of the greater profession. The solution he proposes is rewriting and renewing the law, and establishing a new special unit for young journalists in the media councils. [h2]An Alternative Syndicate?[/h2] In efforts to provide online journalists with a sense of security and representation, the Arab Union for Electronic Journalism established the Online Journalists Syndicate in Downtown Cairo. Ahmed Abu Kassem, Secretary General of this unofficial syndicate, says that the official syndicate, which receives governmental fa unding, does not recognize their alternative syndicate, which was established in 2011 without any government funding. In 2015, the former press syndicate head Yehia Qalash attacked an online campaign called for the rights of online journalists, referring to the campaign as “suspicious”. The current syndicate head Abdel Mohsen Salama refuses to recognize the existence of an independent syndicate for online journalists. Thus, not only does the Press Syndicate not recognize online journalism and journalists; it has also actively obstructed any serious attempts to establish new professional syndicates to fill the void, despite the overwhelming trend toward online journalism worldwide. [h2]The Fate of Thousands[/h2] Abu Kassem notes that the problems remains unresolved, despite the 2014 constitution recognizing electronic journalism as a separate profession from the printed press. In this context, Abu Kassem questions the fate of thousands of online journalists who remain uninsured and unprotected, despite having been active in the profession for years. He says he believes that they will persist in their efforts until they eventually to obtain their rights, noting that in the previous century, the Press Syndicate fought for years to be established as an official entity in the 1940s.
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