Statements made by the Press Syndicate head, Diaa Rashwan, during a seminar in Alexandria on Monday sparked controversy among journalists. Rashwan’s statements were related to the non-recognition of journalists unregistered with the syndicate.
In a video excerpt posted by a journalist online, Rashwan spoke of syndicate membership as the only legal recognition for journalists in Egypt.
“By law, a journalist is identified if a member of the syndicate and a non-member practicing the job is subject to imprisonment for a year, as well as his employer,” Rashwan said.
A young female journalist expressed her anger by asking Rashwan: “Do I have to die for the syndicate to take care of me?”, in reference to 23-year-old Mayada Ashraf who died covering clashes in protests last March.
However, in a longer video, Rashwan stated that as a result of the legal text, “the Press Syndicate is facing a dilemma: we can’t abandon those non-member journalists’ rights and demands, but we are unable to legally defend them or recognise them.”
A widespread issue for Egyptian journalists, especially the young and recently enrolled in the field, is that they are unable to obtain their syndicate membership. This is partly because the syndicate attempted to tighten the circle of members for financial reasons, but also as a result of newspapers’ refusal in several cases to hire journalists with contracts.
Meanwhile, journalists said there are two solutions to the issue. The first one is to change the Press Syndicate law, which will require time and a real will for reform.
The second – and more achievable – possibility is to establish another syndicate, even though it contradicts the constitution, which specifies one syndicate per profession.
The Egyptian Online Journalists’ Syndicate (EOJS) was founded in 2011 and launched in 2013 as a professional syndicate. EORS aims to register as an official professional syndicate for online journalists, and has completed drafting a new law for submission to the committee for legislative reform affiliated with the cabinet.
According to EORS chairman Salah Abdel Sabour, the syndicate has almost 1,200 members, and 300 more journalists are expected to become members by January. Meanwhile, at least 6,000 journalists work in different online news websites according to his estimation, including 1,200 who are Press Syndicate members.
Legal reforms suggested by EORS include articles related to journalists’ rights to job security, and rules to ensure intellectual property rights for journalists’. The move comes amid fast-developing web journalism.
“We also address the problems faced by journalists trying to apply for membership at the current Press Syndicate, such as having a signed contract with their institutions, a membership requirement which most journalists do not have,” Abdel Sabour told Daily News Egypt Tuesday.
Abdel Sabour said EORS accept membership by enrolment for those who do not have contracts, and forces itself as a third party between a journalist and his employer. “In that way, we can guarantee that there will be no arbitrary suspension,” Abdel Sabour said.
Journalists are also subject to employers’ random decisions to move them across departments, and are also required by their managers to write stories that could have critical publishing risk implications.
“EORS aims at protecting journalists from such risks by becoming an involved party, forbidding journalists’ shifts against their will and not writing serious content that would endanger them without a written notification from their editors,” Abdel Sabour added.
According to the Press Syndicate’s Law 76/1970, Article 65 states that no person can work as a journalist without being registered at the Press Syndicate. This comes upon approval from the Arab Socialist Union, established by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1962.
“Not only is the law outdated, it is also flawed and cannot be applied to the circumstances of journalism in Egypt today, including advancement in technology and the expansion of online newspapers,” Khaled El-Balshy, a senior member of the Press Syndicate and head of its legislative committee told Daily News Egypt Tuesday.
Despite updates and amendments to the law in 2012, Article 103 forbids newspapers’ owners and editors-in-chief from hiring journalists who are not registered at the syndicate, either temporarily or permanently.
Therefore, the law states that violations of the above articles are punishable by a jail term of up to one year and a fine of EGP 300, for both journalists and employers.
Among the flaws, the Press Syndicate requests applicants to submit a portfolio, often known as a journalist’s archive, which includes all his published work.
“The law must change, it is retarded . Membership requirements are based on a non-member’s real practice of the job as a journalist,” El-Balshy commented.
Rashwan admitted that the changing circumstances from the Mubarak-regime up to today have left thousands of young journalists working in the field without syndicate membership, under extremely terrible conditions.
The dilemma discussed by the Press Syndicate members pose several problems for journalists who are not registered. Topmost is claiming rights in any legal matter.
For example, when a journalist stands before prosecution, obtaining the Press Syndicate’s formal support can be problematic. El-Balshy, who explained that he has experienced the situation several times, said that depending on the prosecutor’s whim, syndicate members are allowed to attend with the journalist to defend him.
“In other instances, I get asked ‘on which basis should this happen’, especially in cases where the journalist in not registered,” El-Balshy said. Therefore, as Rashwan also argued in various press statements, the Press Syndicate’s power is hindered in situations related to defending journalists’ legal rights.
The constitution’s chapter regulating rights, freedoms and public duties recognised in Article 70 the freedom of Egyptian citizens to own and publish newspapers and establish visual, digital or audio media.
The constitution also established the role of syndicates in Article 76 as unions responsible for developing their members’ skills and defending their rights and protecting their interests.
Meanwhile, Rashwan and El-Balshy believe pressure groups can help and call on journalists to object and even organise strikes in their institutions against arbitrary practices. This also includes filing police reports against assaults, hoping that a common collective stance by journalists, supported by the Press Syndicate, could be empowering to their demands and weakening to the institutions.