“Those not listed with the Press Syndicate should not work in journalism, and the syndicate should undertake measures to limit the number of unregistered journalists to protect media ethics.”
This was a note by Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat addressing the Press Syndicate on Monday evening.
The paragraph, that irritated journalists, was in Barakat’s statement on referral of several Al-Bayan newspaper workers to an urgent criminal court for publishing false news.
“The Prosecutor General is aware that the Press Syndicate’s law is outdated, as it states that approval for the practice of journalism comes from the Arab Socialist Union, which was the ruling system of Gamal Abdel Nasser,” said young member of the Press Syndicate Mahmoud Kamel, who admitted the law needed to be changed.
Al-Bayan’s Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim Aref, along with CEO Naguiba Mahgoub and reporter Sara Alaa, were investigated for “publishing false news that can endanger general security, terrorise people and harm public interest”, state media reported last week.
The Press Syndicate, which strongly condemned Aref’s speedy prosecution without consultation with the syndicate in crimes related to publishing, will seek to discuss with Barakat the issue to avoid the escalation of the crisis and attacks on journalism.
“There are rules and regulations organising publishing crimes,” said syndicate member Khaled El-Balshy. “They state that there legal procedures before bringing a journalist into question, on top of which the syndicate must be notified in advance.”
According to Aref’s side of the story, security forces from Dokki police station stormed his office and arrested him after searching his documents. Although Aref did not account for any physical or verbal assault against him, he reported that he was detained in an unknown location for questioning.
Aref, who was taken from the police station in a deportation truck, said that through the little car window he was able to see that they headed towards Giza, then took the road towards Nasr City, although he said he was not sure, after he had made several guesses along the way before giving up when the sun set.
“The car stopped in front of a massive building with a unique architecture. There was nobody except security guards at the external gates. The building had door glasses and was also guarded by a few men. They looked at me, confused and pitiful. There was nobody in the building at all except for us,” Aref wrote in an article published Monday night on Al-Bayan.
He added that there seemed to be no facilities such as water or bathrooms. Kamel, who attended the investigations with Aref, revealed to Daily News Egypt that the location was the new headquarters of prosecution general authorities in the Fifth Settlement – close to Nasr City district in Cairo.
El-Balshy said mistakes in reporting happen and that does not mean they should be overlooked, but argued that the ‘state solution’ to arrest and imprison was incorrect. “Fixing a false report happens by publishing the correct information,” he said.
Al-Bayan had published a news story regarding the murder of six prosecution officials amid ongoing attacks on judges. It later published a correction and apologised for publishing without fact checking.
“The right to reply was therefore respected according to the ethics of the profession,” El-Balshy said.
But the matter holds more complications as the Prosecutor General’s remarks imply that those who are not registered at the Press Syndicate are not legally recognised as journalists, and face, according to the syndicate’s own law, charges of illegal impersonation.
Al-Bayan’s journalists are facing that charge as well.
A couple of months back, former head of the Press Syndicate Diaa Rashwan referred to part of the outdated press law, and was met by wide criticism from the young community of journalists, most of whom aren’t registered at the syndicate.
However, El-Balshy explained that looking at that part of the text only is ‘intentionally’ taking words out of context. “The same law states that in order for a journalist to become a member of the syndicate, he or she has to have professional experience,” he said.
Moreover, the law established a penalty for employers of unlisted journalists. “Does the Prosecutor General intend to investigate thousands of journalists that practice the job on daily basis? Or another thousands who worked in the field before they acquired their syndicate membership? Or even newspaper owners who hired those?” Kamel said.
Egypt’s press laws need revision and reform as acknowledged an in the process by the Press Syndicate, which desires to keep sole control over journalism. The current system is confused because if you are not listed at the syndicate you are not a journalist. Yet, you cannot be listed if you have not previously worked as a journalist.
By all means, the Press Syndicate’s new president Yehia Qallash and members continue to defend journalists who are not members. They are actively supporting detained journalists and directly involved in their cases.