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Press Syndicate is not politicised but cannot ignore national issues: Amr Badr - Daily News Egypt

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Press Syndicate is not politicised but cannot ignore national issues: Amr Badr

‘I am personally committed to defending journalists, whether they are members of the syndicate or not,’ says new board member

On 17 March, young journalist Amr Badr was elected as a member of the Press Syndicate’s board council with 778 votes, according to the syndicate’s official figures. Badr, editor-in-chief of Yanair Gate news website, was a key player in the unprecedented historical crisis that took place last year, seeing the syndicate and state authorities clash.

His sit-in at the syndicate—a result of security forces repeatedly storming his house—had ended with an even fiercer police raid on the syndicate and his arrest.

After spending nearly four months in detention, a reduced court verdict was issued, sentencing the former Press Syndicate president and his two deputies to a suspended one-year jail term.

With the election of Badr, who opposed the state in the controversial “Red Sea islands” case, journalists renewed their hopes of having a voice to defend their rights, especially in light of a state campaign led against opposition journalists and amid fears that Abdel Mohsen Salama, the new syndicate president, could be representing state institutions rather than the journalists of the syndicate.

After the verdict against the syndicate’s former leaders on 25 March, Daily News Egypt sat down with Badr at the syndicate. The interview came two days after the first conflict between Badr and colleagues on one hand, and Salama on the other, had erupted over the formation of the different committees of the syndicate.

The first encounter between board members was not successful. What happened?

Well, the new syndicate president invited us to an informal meeting to take place within 24 hours, saying that if during our discussions we agreed on the formation of the council, we would start taking the procedures to make official announcements, which usually happens within 48 hours according to the syndicate’s regulations.

However, we were surprised after Salama’s introduction and some protocol greetings among members that the session was turning official and that we were actually forming the committees.

As so, myself and four other colleagues, who had not come to the meeting prepared for that, objected. According to the syndicate’s regulations, Salama must call for the official meeting 48 hours in advance, in addition to announcing the meeting’s agenda.

After some back and forth on the regulations inside the room, we still didn’t reach an agreement, and the president insisted on going forward with the official meeting, even asking for it to be recorded. Therefore, our group of five members retreated from the meeting, demanding an official initiation.

What did that situation convey to you?

Of course, it’s a negative sign. There seems to be a willingness to exclude 40 percent of the board’s members—five out of 12. I do hope I am wrong and that people will soon become aware that such conflicts are not in our own best interest. Therefore, I call for more teamwork and would welcome discussions.

How do you assess the electoral process? More specifically, how did you perceive the state’s role?

Definitely, the state had aspirations for certain candidates to win and others not to. As a result, there was interference with the elections, and I am certain of that—at least in my case. But the fact that I won a seat reflects the awareness of journalists who support independent syndical work, but that example of course doesn’t rule out state interference.

How do you feel about the narrative of some candidates, the media, and the new president about “separating political work from syndical work” and that the “syndicate is no place for politics”?

The Press Syndicate has always been an important institution in the society. Our job is naturally related to public work and direct engagement with politics—they are inseparable. I reject claims that the syndicate has been politicised, because the syndicate has always held historic stances on matters of public concern.

How do you feel about the idea of the syndicate not engaging in politics, especially since the current council contains members of different political affiliations?

That is not realistic, but we must differentiate between political work and national work. Political work is that of parties, but we are talking about national causes. The “Red Sea islands” case was not an issue of a specific party or a political current. It was a case of national concern, and so are causes of public freedoms—freedom of expression, freedom of opinion, and so on.

In cases of disagreements and exhaustion of discussions, we would recur to voting.

Moving on to new legislations for which there is a pressing need: what is your vision for needed amendments and new laws?

According to our new constitution, we journalists and media professionals have a say in laws that organise our work and institutions. We are at the beginning of a legal battle and our role needs to grow by starting more serious communication with our colleagues inside the parliament, translating our visions into real concepts with the help of experts, and creating solid draft laws to negotiate with the government.

But this already happened, such as in the unified press and media draft law and the draft on ending journalists’ imprisonment in publishing crimes—yet laws issued had nothing to do with the drafts or previous negotiations in the case of the first law, while the second remains in the drawers. Could there be different mechanisms to avoid that?

I think that there should have been more pressure on the government because some laws were passed while they shouldn’t have been. Next time, we need to be stricter during negotiations and even protest, if needed.

Is the syndicate state-funded? Does it need to diversify its sources?

Mainly, journalists’ allowances are provided by the state. But there are other resources we can access. For instance, we have three empty floors in this building. One of them is currently being prepared to become a professional training centre, but what about the rest of the floors? Why didn’t we make use of them over the years? They could be rented to news agencies.

The same goes for lands the syndicate owns. The syndicate should also demand administrational fees on public services it provides. The point is to generate income alternatives instead of just relying on the state.

Why is the journalist allowance issue problematic?

Let me be very clear: journalists’ allowances are not an act of generosity by the state; it is a right granted by the courts. It is not only part of journalists’ salaries, but they also have the right to demand its increase.

Perhaps the state fears that if the numbers of members of the syndicate grows, the financial burden does as well. The problem is that there is no real legal definition of those allowances and on which basis they are being distributed—all we have is a verdict by the Administrative Court entitling journalists to receive them on a monthly basis. We need to include allowances in new legislations, along with procedures to have them steadily increase—at least by 10 percent.

Young journalists nowadays do not feel any sense of belonging to this syndicate, given the difficulty of joining it. Yet it is upon this very same generation that the largest news institutions depend. What is your plan for their inclusion?

First of all, I am personally committed to defending journalists—whether they are members of the syndicate or not. It is not the journalists’ fault if they couldn’t join the syndicate. This is to blame on the retarded laws and bureaucratic procedures that date back to the seventies and which failed to take into account the developments in the profession.

Second, in order for young journalists to be included in the syndicate, new laws need to aim at changing the definition of journalists to include anybody who practices the job, beginning at field reporting and including writing reports, especially in light of growing digital journalism, which in turn needs to be included in the legal definition of news institutions.

Last but not least: how will you tackle the issue of journalists’ imprisonment due to publishing crimes, amid continuing cases in which several state bodies are involved?

I believe that a permanent legal unit needs to be established at the syndicate, including lawyers who are dedicated to following up on journalists’ cases starting at the moment of their arrest and are monitoring court sessions, detention conditions, and the situation of the families of the detainees. On the other hand, we need to continue supporting journalists with our presence—whether physically in police stations or through regular reports condemning their imprisonment. The syndicate’s freedoms committee should have more mechanisms at its disposal in facing that issue.

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