“A syndicate for journalists is established in the United Arab Republic as a legal entity, its headquarters in the city of Cairo. It may establish branches in governorates by decision of the syndicate’s board.” This was the first article of the Press Syndicate’s law 76 issued in 1970, which was first launched in 1941.
Forty-six years later, the law–which uses a former reference to the Arab Republic of Egypt under Nasser’s regime–is the latest update and is implemented as it is in the present. Despite being dissolved more than thirty years ago and withstanding six different regimes of rule in Egypt, the law applied nowadays includes an article that cites the “respect of the principles of the Arab Socialist Union”.
Although amendments to the law remain in the abstract for the long debates that would be required before finalising a draft, the mere mention of its reconsideration was not even brought to the table until recently, despite general agreement within the press community as to its obsolescence and pressing demands to update it.
However, this week secretary general of the Supreme Press Council Salah Eissa made some press statements, which opened the prospects to finally look at the law. “The law expired in the mid-80s given changes in political, professional, and industrial circumstances, making it non-compliant with the Constitution,” Eissa told the local Al-Youm Al-Sabea newspaper on Tuesday.
Karem Mahmoud, prominent member of the syndicate’s board and former secretary general, said that the process would require long discussions but that the current environment is favourable to changing the law.
“In previous years, the press community had several concerns about introducing amendments to the law, fearing they would not be taken into consideration by the government or parliament,” Mahmoud said in comments to Daily News Egypt Wednesday.
According to him, one of the obstacles faced were demands by workers in radio and television bodies to be affiliated with the syndicate, but currently, new laws opened the chance for them to establish an independent syndicate.
Moreover, articles related to the conditions of membership at the syndicate need to be revised. “On one hand, the job itself needs to be redefined given the changing nature of journalistic work,” Mahmoud said.
According to the law, a journalist is not legally recognised unless he or she is a member of the syndicate. But the procedure to acquire a membership is complicated, as those requesting memberships need to present an archive of their work, meaning they need to have practised the job before entering the syndicate.
Furthermore, Mahmoud explained that membership is limited to print publications. “Electronic journalism needs to be taken into consideration as we no longer live in the age of a few state-owned printed newspapers,” he stated.
As syndicate membership requires the signature of a contract with a newspaper, many electronic websites felt unbound to hire journalists, thus wasting their economic and social rights. Hundreds of journalists, especially among younger generations, have faced low salaries, absence of contracts, and arbitrary dismissal.
In the past three years, hundreds of journalists were subject to mass layoffs, from both online and printed newspapers. The latest of this wave took place in Dotmsr in July when 85 journalists were fired. The online website had fired another 75 journalists in 2014. The practice also took place in leading privately-owned daily publications like Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Youm Al-Sabea.
The syndicate has tried to be flexible with electronic journalists’ membership applications, but only those working for websites supported by printed issues are allowed. The journalists are required to present an archive of their work in the printed issues.
But the most critical problem of not having the syndicate’s legal protection was claiming rights and support in trials and detention under an increasing crackdown on press workers. Sparking criticism but speaking the truth, former head of the Press Syndicate Diaa Rashwan had once stated in a seminar that “by law, a journalist is identified as a member of the syndicate and a non-member practising the job is subject to imprisonment for a year, as well as his employer”.
Meanwhile, as the Constitution allows only one professional syndicate by profession, the establishment of the Egyptian Online Journalists’ Syndicate (EOJS) launched in 2013 and comprised of 1,200 members by 2014, could not be officially registered.