The conditions for the media and the press in Egypt have severely deteriorated over the past few years due to a lack of legislative regulations and entities to regulate them throughout the past three years and due to several violation against the freedom of press, journalists, and institutions.
Condition were expected to improve with the issuance of the long awaited unified media law, but new regulations replaced the planned legislation
Three media and press institutions, the Supreme Council for Media Organisations, the National Press Authority, and the National Media Authority, were established via a presidential decree with concerns arising how these institutions would aid the cause of press freedom or whether they would even hinder it.
Furthermore, the media landscape in Egypt last month witnessed the election of a new press syndicate board and new leaders .
Throughout recent years, there have been around 30 journalists registered with the press syndicate imprisoned, along with quite a number of others that are not registered with the syndicate. Journalists and media workers have been suspended from their work for dubious reasons while many others even faced investigations.
Moreover, in 2016, an unexpected and harsh attack on press freedom occurred when the Press Syndicate’s headquarters in Cairo was stormed by police forces, with its aftermath resulting in suspended prison sentences for its former head and two of his deputies.
Daily News Egypt interviewed one of Egypt’s top historian and journalist Salah Eissa, who has lived through the transformation of press and media in Egypt over different eras, as he started working in the filed since 1972, and wrote about history and political and social thought in 1962 prior to his career as a journalist .
In the interview, Daily News Egypt discussed with Eissa his views regarding the new Press Syndicate’s board, the current conditions and performances, new legislative measures, and newly-formed institutions, as well as his views on violations against the media and the press.
Eissa is currently chairperson of the board of directors of the Al-Qahera weekly cultural newspaper, which is issued by the Ministry of Culture, and secretary-general of the Supreme Press Council, which will be replaced by the newly-formed National Press Authority. Eissa was arrested, investigated, and suspended from work several times throughout his career.
His great expertise in press and media led him to become one of the figures who contributed to formulating the law for the National Press Authority, while his remarkable career made him one of the great personalities of press and politics history in Egypt.
Considering how the new media and press institutions will work, do you think they will be able to put forth solutions for the current problems of the sector?
These instructions will work based on laws currently enforced for regulating the field work and its workers.
For instance, with regards to freedom of expression, when we were discussing the work of the Press Authority, the government representatives present during the discussion sessions were not helpful in improving the situation of freedoms, always relating it to fighting terrorism. The government believes that freedom of the press will be critical due to the security situation, therefore they postponed it.
These institutions will work on regulating the work in accordance with old laws instead of the essential law that the whole media sector has been waiting for so long, which is the unified media law.
This included the practical application of constitutional articles supporting freedom of the press and other fair solutions but for some reasons it is still pending until further notice.
I think that the state and the parliament committed a great injustice for postponing such a law.
Back in 2016, how did you view the raid on the Press Syndicate and its consequences that resulted in verdicts against former press syndicate leaders?
The dispute between the syndicate and security forces started mainly due to “Red Sea” Islands protest in April. When protesters gathered in front of the syndicate, security forces deployed in the vicinity of the syndicate for the whole week after the Friday protest.
The syndicate viewed this as hindering their work, as a number of journalists were stopped for investigation and banned them from entering their syndicate. In response to this situation, the syndicate filed a report to the general prosecution against the police.
April protests led to arrest warrants against dozens. Among them were two fellow journalists who were not available in the beginning to appear at the prosecution. But, later, the two journalists headed to the syndicate headquarters to meet the former press syndicate leader Yehia Qallash, to hand them to prosecution directly, granting them syndicate protection.
The journalists relied on the syndicate due to fears of security forces assaulting them or falling victim to enforced disappearences.
The issue could have been solved if any high entity interfered to solve it, but unfortunately this did not happen. However, the media and culture committee in parliament attempted to solve it, but failed, which made it seem like the situation might require interference of a higher entity.
I was informed that the Prime Minister interfered to solve the issue between the Minister of Interior and the syndicate leaders. But let me say that the syndicate’s reaction at the beginning of the issue was viewed as crossing a red line, as rallies were arranged on the stairs of the syndicate.
When the leader was summoned from his home during the day of the storming, he arrived to syndicate to find young journalists very annoyed.
Additionally, during the meeting that was held in the syndicate by council members, harsh decisions were taken that included calls for the dismissal of the Interior Minister. This came prior to the General Assembly, which worsened the climate between the two sides, especially since journalists demanded a presidential apology. This complicated the situation.
I believe that the issue could have been solved in way that could have satisfied both sides.
The escalation that took place between them put the country’s leadership in an embarassing situation, especially since both sides are significant institutions of the country.
Regarding the other side, the security forces violated Article 70 of the Penal Code that prohibits syndicate inspections without presence of the prosecutor, the head of Press Syndicate, or his acting assistants.
The security forces escalated their conflict with the syndicate, because they saw the members’ and journalists’ reaction to the raid, as disparaging their position
In the Press Syndicate’s last elections, there were two different views. One side argued that the syndicate was humiliated during Qallash‘s tenure. The other was of the opinion that his tenure was one of the best in the syndicate’s history. Where do you stand on that?
I believe that, overall, the syndicate‘s performance was acceptable. Most journalists were satisfied with the syndicate‘s performance. The syndicate was carrying out both its general and its services role well. Moreover, its relations with the state and the government was fine. The relationship between the syndicate board and its chairperson, as well as the relationship between the syndicate and state agencies—with the exception of the Ministry of Interior—were all good. There were meetings with the cabinet and the ministers. Journalists’ problems were discussed and resolved.
Many of the services provided by the syndicate needed support from the government. The syndicate, through its board and through the Supreme Press Council, obtained that necessary support, including support for the pensions fund and the medical fund.
Some problems that existed before the board was elected remained after the tenure was over. This is only natural, as some problems cannot be resolved by the board alone, such as that of unemployment. Anyone who claims this could have been resolved is lying to journalists. Some problems cannot be resolved by or through syndicates.
We did, however, have suggestions to try and improve the situation. In the Unified Media Law, the Press Syndicate was represented by the president and other members, including Khaled Miery, Karim Mahmoud, and Diaa Rashwan. We suggested establishing a fund to help the unemployment of journalists, financed by the syndicate, its members, and the government. This aimed to provide some help to unemployed journalists for a specific period—for instance one year—through which they could find a job.
In addition, how many people were against the board? The Path Correcting Committee that was formed did not include that many people. Their focus was on the elections. They filed several lawsuits to dissolve the board or put the syndicate under judicial supervision. All these actions were not linked to the claimed problems.
To that, I think the conflict was made up to serve two goals: elections and politics.
How do you think the current board will perform? Some claim that Abdul Mohsen Salama is affiliated with the government. Will that be good or bad to the syndicate—if it is true?
The idea of having a president that acts as a bridge was born in 1984. There was a movement in the syndicate called the Syndicate Liberation Movement that called for the separation between editors-in-chief and members of the syndicate. This was based on an accurate legal provision. Both of these positions have the authority to punish journalists. This aimed to separate between both powers, so if one journalist is facing problems with their editor-in-chief, they can resort to the syndicate for support.
But then, another unofficial movement formed at the newspapers’ boards of directors. This was at a time when the state owned all newspapers. So the directors of the board agreed that they can swap the position of the syndicate’s head among themselves, instead of fighting for it. They even convinced the state that they can absorb journalists’ anger and become a bridge linking between the government and the journalists.
The tool they used was the salary given by the syndicate to its members. It was linked to voting in the syndicate elections. This further complicated the profession.
This salary was supposed to be paid by employers. The state was the employer at the time. That salary was paid for one year. However, this led to journalists working at parties’ newspapers to be unpaid. These unpaid journalists called for equal pay. Some national newspapers were also suffering from financial problems, so they could not pay their employees that higher salary.
To that, the government decided to replace the parties’ newspapers and the defaulting newspapers and then pay the additional salary to journalists. This prompted newspapers that were doing well not to pay their employees themselves. To that, the government replaced them too and decided to pay that additional salary.
Even worse, some administrators at the newspapers, not journalists, faked their paperwork so that they would be eligible for that additional salary. And, again, when private newspapers were founded, they argued they should receive this additional salary too. They told their journalists that they will not be paid a salary from the newspaper, but will receive it from the syndicate. That salary itself increased from EGP 30 to EGP 280 in a few years.
This situation—where the board members of national newspapers swapped the position of syndicate head—lasted until the 25 January Revolution in 2011, when Galal Aref was elected. At the time, the National Democratic Party (NDP) was dissolved, so there were no other candidates running against Aref, as nobody wanted to compete.
Do you think the new administrative will perform effectively in solving all the issues that publicly rose during the recent period for fair solution, such as imprisonment against journalists, allowance, etc.?
First of all, let me clarify the basis that the bridge current follows, which stands in stark contrast with the independence current. It focuses on obtaining from the state privileges that journalists request.
For instance, regarding allowances, it should be paid by the employer. This means that a governmental newspaper should pay it to the journalist from its own budget; the same applies to privately owned newspapers. This changed when the bridge current addressed the government to pay allowances to journalists from its own budget.
So the question now is: does the government have enough funds to pay for the allowances, which definitely exceeds EGP 280m. The new administration of the syndicate has a role in this, but it depends on how they will coordinate with the state in such topics.
But let us ask: how could we now if the new leader is credible or not, and how the state will give him the money for syndicate services. In addition to these questions, we are unable to find a solution for the issue of allowances until today. We are also unable to find another source rather than the government to pay for the allowances.
I saw all the plans for allowances written during the election campaigns, all of which are innacurate.
I should point out that founding a newspaper has become difficult and expensive; many businesspeople received licenses to establish newspapers, but did not go through with it because of the high expesnes that would be incurred on them, such as paying journalists’ salaries and helping journalists receive allowances.
The poor economic conditions led to an increasingly critical problem, which is that a newspaper could hire journalists without providing them with salaries, but the newspaper assists to register them with the syndicate to receive allowances, so that the allowance would be considered the actual salary.
When those journalists attempt to leave the newspaper after they have been fed up with the situation, the newspaper addresses the syndicate to revoke their membership.
Fake election campaigns sometimes serve as a nod to a phenomenon that used to occur in history but which does not suit newspapers today.
Heads of national newspapers that were running to become the Press Syndicate head were always keen to pay the allowances of journalists along with the February salaries a few days before the elections that as syndicate board elections always take place in March, to guarantee that journalists cast their votes in favour of them. It was something like paying allowances on time in exchange for votes. However, I don’t recommend this approach.
Moving to arbitrary dismissal and claims reported in election campaigns that will amend the Labour Law are both illogical and unfounded, as the law already grants an employer, whenever they see fit—for instance, if an employee has become unproductive—to take such action.
There are many of journalists working for newspapers who are still unable to receive syndicate membership due to allowances. A number of those journalists expressed outrage for not being able to vote in the council election due to not being members. How do you comment on both issues?
In our generation, there were several journalists—some of them well-known—who didn’t want to have the syndicate membership, rejecting the idea of paying subscription fees to the syndicate just to receive membership, and they were performing their work as journalists normally without any barriers.
But the situation now is different; the idea of the right to perform work and the idea of joining the syndicate became one thing in a very complicated way. This implies that a journalist cannot work freely unless he is a syndicate member.
The only entity that can give you a work license as a journalist is the syndicate—not even the newspaper one belongs to—due to the protection it could offer for a journalist.
The syndicate represents protection for the journalist from sudden termination; otherwise, the employer might face a problem with syndicate. Membership in the syndicate became a financial and professional privilege, and therefore people have been seeking it.
This issue reminds me of guilds practiced in Middle Ages, such as builders and fishers. There were also groups that required a license from the shaykh of the profession to join, and if he did not grant it, then one could not work. Therefore, I believe this the profession as a whole needs to change, with new regulations and organisation.
To what extent do you agree with the foundation of the Media Syndicate and what do you think about Maspero’s performance and roles?
In the beginning, journalists rejected media workers to join their syndicate, out of fear of sharing services with them, especially at that time when media workers outnumbered journalists. Also, media workers at that time were working in government, and the syndicate wanted to maintain its independency.
As for the part of Maspero, we really have a problem with media affiliated to the state, as it is not media for the people, but rather for the state and its leader, that the National Media Authority developed a plan for its regulation.
Does depicting the new administration of the Press Syndicate as a return to the bridge current mean that you were not satisfied with recent election results?
The recent election was fueled by money, a phenomenon that we thought disappeared in the past. Money in exchange for votes was only applied in the bridge current era, but seems like it returned again in these elections, as we saw food distributed to journalists during the voting days.
Previously, press institutions used to send food to journalists and send them buses to deliver them to the syndicate for voting. I can tell you an example: back in history, there was a group that we used to call ʺTeam 82 Airborneʺ, and this group included journalists working abroad. National newspapers used to send them paid flight tickets to get them to Egypt for one week in order to cast their votes and then return them to their countries.
The new administration is following the bridge current that relies on financial incentives. I believe this experience will not work, and it will harm the state.
So, what do you suggest for the syndicate?
It has to return to its independency; return to fighting for journalists’ rights and the advancement of the profession.
How do you view the freedom of press in Egypt, amid arrests of journalists during their work, journalist suspensions, censureship of issues, and being imprisoned for critical contents?
Fair solutions were not seen in any of the syndicate candidates’ plans; only Qallash, who a made a good suggestion in his plan, which is converting constitutional articles of freedom of press into full legislations.
The Constitution bans gags, newspaper confiscation, hinderance of work or its cancelation, and punishments for publishing crimes. It also requires the national newspaper to work independently, without taking orders from the executive authority, and to open room for discussion among all sides.
There are a number of guarantees for freedom of press in the Constitution of 2014 that were not available in any previous constitution in Egypt’s history. These guarantees are great to regulate the issue, but they have to be translated into legislation.
Arrests or imprisonment of journalists is being practiced in accordance with articles of the penal code or any other enforced legislation. Even accusing journalists of belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group occurs in accordance with articles of other laws.
Based on your wide experience in the field, do you think that online news websites caused any deterioration to press quality?
These websites focus only on scoop, exceeding media ethics that we all should be aware of before joining the profession. This caused a sense of cheapness in the profession.
But we cannot say that the performance fully worsened, as there are still printed newspapers that are able to maintain media ethics. However, they have to work more on finding solutions that could maintain performance, through developing in-depth work and news features, and not only reporting news.
News is being reported everywhere, but specialised journalism is not. There should be newspapers providing specialised journalism on certain topics.
Can we say that due to restrictions on critical work, analytical journalism and investigative reporting disappeared from the scene?
No, they are still present. We have to admit that there is a new generation of young journalists who have real talents and that their work has contributed to providing good quality. But they are few and not granted real opportunities due to intermediary hiring through connections. In addition to this, unprofessional journalists are present everywhere.