CAIRO: Last February Mervat Rashad, a journalist with Nahdet Misr newspaper, was attacked by a Wafd party member while she was at the party s office seeking information for a story.
When she decided to file a complaint at the police station, she – not being a member of the Journalists’ Syndicate – was possibly subject to up to six months in jail for taking over a false vocation.
Thousands of journalists could be legally accountable taking on a false vocation, said Rashad.
Due to limited access to the Journalists’ Syndicate membership, many practicing journalists are working on an informal, illegal basis.
It s a disaster; a lot of young journalists – actually the building blocks of many newspapers – are not counted as journalists. … On the other side, half of those who have syndicate membership are technicians, Sayed El-Turki, a journalist with Al-Dostour told Daily News Egypt.
Despite being a member in the syndicate, El-Turki joined non-members, forming a group called the Alliance of Young Journalists, to agitate for their right to join the syndicate.
Currently, syndicate membership requirements include being published frequently for a year in a locally-registered newspaper, whether state-run, operated by a political party or licensed as an independent paper. The latter license is difficult to obtain, especially with prohibitive bureaucratic procedures commonly seen as a means of restricting press freedom.
This forces many newspapers to obtain foreign publishing licenses.
Al-Alam Al-Youm (The World Today) and El-Mal (Money) are two daily newspapers that have foreign licenses and hundreds of journalists work there unofficially, according to Egyptian law.
The stipulation that journalists must have worked for a year before being eligible for membership leaves journalists in locally-licensed papers with a handful of complaints.
Earlier this week, journalist at Al-Badil opposition newspaper staged a demonstration demanding membership, which they are denied because their newspaper has been operating for less than a year and consequently falls short of the syndicate requirements for official recognition.
“If we don’t have syndicate membership we have no documentation or press cards to prove we are journalists, not ordinary citizens, Selma El-Wardani, a reporter with Al-Badil previously told Daily News Egypt.
“I have been in situations where I’d be interviewing people on the street and ended up being questioned by state security. If we have nothing to prove we are journalists the situation can get dangerous…If we were arrested or made to face charges as a result of journalistic activity, the syndicate would stand by us. But as we are now, we have no protection whatsoever.
Gathering information with no official documentation is a crime according to the Egyptian penal code. It is feared that the syndicate will continue adding more conditions to complicate the procedure. Additionally, the one-year requirement is renewable based on what the syndicate sees as breaches to its protocols.
The vague definition of protocol breaches has left journalists complaining about unfair treatment.
We would be working in the field for five years but fallouts between the syndicate and our organizations have deprived us of our rights, said Mohamed Ismail, another journalist with Nahdet Misr.
Ismail and 40 others at the same newspaper cannot join the syndicate because their publication is registered under a foreign license.
They fear that such foreign-licensed newspapers will close at any time, but this can happen to any newspaper, Ismail added.
The legal problem is that many journalists are denied their rights as journalists despite being arrested for published work, said Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (HRInfo).
Such [unregistered] journalists are neither subject to press law articles nor to publishing penal codes, which makes the court verdict harsh, added Eid.
The rights lawyer also mentioned as an example the editor-in-chief of Helwan El-Youm, who is not recognized as a journalist before the court in an ongoing case initiated by a minister.
According to HRInfo, 8,000 journalists work with different newspapers or websites and are not approved vocationally through the syndicate.
Another problem is that syndicate membership is a must if information is sought from most government bodies.
The enrollment conditions are well-known, we have suffered a lot from newspapers which lack any financial or managerial structures, said Hatem Zakareia, the secretary general of the Journalists’ Syndicate.
Zakareia added that such problematic newspapers would shut their doors at any time causing crises for their journalists that burdened the syndicate. El-Hakika (The Truth), Afaq Arabia (Arab Horizons) and El-Shaab (The People) are dailies and periodicals that either stopped or were banned, leaving tens of journalists deprived of security, added Zakareia.
However he pledged that journalists working with foreign-licensed papers might be enrolled within 2008.
Many conditions and codes in our syndicate need revision and reform, but things take time, Zakareia said.
He explained that some codes require members of the syndicate board to be active members in the now void Socialists Union. Other codes require an approval from the Minister of National Guidance before issuing any publication, a position that no longer exists.
Such codes fit the 1970s, when they were articulated but are not suitable today, Zakareia added.
According to the 1970 press law, any Egyptian journalist who works for a foreign or Egyptian newspaper or a news agency inevitably joins the syndicate.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) broadens the definition of a journalist to include everyone that makes a living from publishing written articles.
Any one who earns money by selling his reports is considered a journalist irrespective of the media channel that publishes his work, said Kamel Labidi, CPJ s representative for the Middle East and North Africa.