The six-decade balancing act
Following the Press Syndicate elections this week, Mona Anis
and Hala Sakr
review the 66-year history of this most precarious of unions, paying tribute to the founding fathers as they go along
Dominated by debates about the nature and role of the Press Syndicate, last week's elections revived memories of the Egyptian journalists' struggle to defend their interests; and it is the nature of these interests that remains the bone of contention today. While some members argue against "excessive politicisation" of syndicate activities -- the outgoing council, they contend, had prioritised politics at the expense of such professional interests as wages and contract terms -- others see political engagement as the main concern of an institution whose stock in trade is freedom of expression.
Though that selfsame debate is as old as the union itself, it has taken on a particularly urgent tenor since 2003, when journalists voted in an oppositional chairman and a largely oppositional council for the first time in syndicate history. As the last term neared its end, scepticism prevailed among opposition journalists regarding the regime's intentions; and their worst fears were confirmed when a preliminary court sentenced four opposition newspaper editors to prison for defaming senior state and ruling party officials. Last month most independent and opposition newspapers suspended publication for one day to protest the imprisonment, threatening more severe measures if journalists are to be imprisoned for publishing news and views unsympathetic to the regime.
While the four journalists in question await the appeal verdict, the campaign against their imprisonment rages on; and in pondering the lessons of the struggle of the founding fathers and successive generations of journalists who put their very lives on the line for freedom of expression, many are reviewing the process whereby the syndicate was established and its ideals formed.
LORD CROMER DISLIKES UNIONS: It was in 1900 that the first meeting with a view to establishing a syndicate for journalists took place, convened by the founder of Al-Ahram Bishara Takla Pasha, at the Hotel Continental. Little came of it beyond ideas voiced only to be nipped in the bud by the British editor of the Egyptian Gazette, who pointed out that an aversion to unions on the part of Lord Cromer, the British High Commissioner and Egypt's effective ruler for 25 years, made the idea unviable. For four decades, increasingly resolute attempts in the same vein were staunchly put down by the three-way coalition that ruled the country: the British, the Palace and minority governments supported by one, the other or both.
In a 1990 article published in the Syndicate's monthly, Al-Suhafeyoun (Journalists), the late Hafez Mahmoud, one of the founding fathers, says the law on publications passed by Lord Cromer was in fact less oppressive than the one in force prior to the British occupation of the country in 1882. But two years after the departure of Cromer in 1909, Mahmoud remembers, a fierce campaign on the part of the press against the extension of the Suez Canal Company concession made the British reconsider Cromer's law: "The best method they came up with was to revive the pre-1881 Ottoman Law of Publications. In response, the four national newspapers then in existence -- Mustafa Kamel's Al-Luwa', Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed's Al-Jarida, Sheikh Ali Youssef's Al-Mu'ayid and Mohamed Farid Wagdi's Al-Dustour -- campaigned for the formation of a union to defend journalists against the onslaught."
Called forth initially by Amin El-Rafei, then journalist at Al-Luwa', and Sheikh Ali Youssef, the proposition hit another stumbling block but made for an impressive show of solidarity as the first demonstration in support of freedom of the press took place on 31 March 1909. Though the lawyers managed to establish their own professional Bar Association in 1912, journalists had to wait until the end of WWI, which quickly suspended the struggle on a heroic note: Amin El-Rafei suspending publication of the National Party's daily organ on the eve of Egypt being declared a British protectorate in November 1914, to avoid publishing the decrees of the occupation authorities, who had deposed Egypt's Khedive and declared martial law in anticipation of war. As a result, El-Rafei would spend a year behind bars.
TRYING FOR A BABY: Sailing on the popular nationalist tide that swept the country in the aftermath of WWI, a committee of journalists led by El-Rafei drafted a statute for a journalists' union, had it printed at the Al-Bilad Press on Nubar Street, and publicised it. They went so far as to elect a chairman, Al-Ahram owner Gabriel Takla, but still the syndicate never saw the light of the day.
During protests of the exile of Saad Zaghloul and other Wafd leaders in 1920, the British Commissioner Field-Marshal Allenby introduced new stringent and oppressive press regulations which targeted journalists and newspapers supporting the revolution and disseminating its news. According to Mahmoud, El-Rafei, with others, eventually formed a Committee for the Defence of Journalists which held three stormy meetings, calling on the authorities to suspend the press regulations until general elections were held and a new parliament convened.
In 1924, following the sweeping victory of the Wafd Party in the general elections and the swearing in of Saad Zaghloul as Prime Minister, hopes for a representative body of journalists were rekindled. Alas, by the time a general assembly of journalists was held, in March 1925, electing its own council in the process, the revolutionary tide that had brought Zaghloul to power was already ebbing, and the syndicate that resulted was "stillborn".
Between 1926 and 1936, further attempts were repeatedly foiled by oppressive British-backed minority governments. While the clouds of WWII gathered, Mahmoud recalls, a proposed "Press Society" was attempted, with the initiators avoiding the word "union" or "syndicate" to keep the fears of the authorities in check: "A law sanctioning that society was drafted in April 1936. It provided for many professional privileges required by journalists, and it had the support of Ali Maher's government. But Maher's government was out of office before it could be presented to parliament."
In 1941, under Hussein Serri Pasha's government, parliament finally granted the right to form professional unions; and journalists, led by Al-Masry owner Mahmoud Abul-Fath, who called for and organised the meetings that were to lead to setting up a steering committee in charge of establishing the syndicate, were quick to seize the opportunity. The committee balanced newspaper owners against journalists, though many had both jobs. In accordance with the stipulations of the law sanctioning its organisation, the union prioritised the drafting of a statuette of internal regulations governing the employment of journalists within press establishments.
"One of the employers," Mahmoud writes, "the late Faris Nimr Pasha, owner of the pro-British newspaper Al-Mukattam, presented a draft that deprived journalists of most of their rights vis-a-vis their employers. This generated much opposition, especially among younger members of the committee. Another draft was therefore prepared and presented. This was the first of many battles the syndicate has waged to define its features in the many years to come." And it was won when the council prevailed.
A UNION (RE)BORN: The constituent general assembly of the syndicate was held at the Court of Appeal in Cairo on Friday 5 December 1941, headed by Judge Yassin Ahmed. Out of 124 enrolled as journalists, 110 attended, including four women: Fatimah El-Youssef, Minerva El-Hakim, Fatimah Ni'emah Rashed and Nabaweya Moussa. The council, chaired by Abul-Fath, comprised 12 members including Mahmoud himself: six newspaper owners and six journalists. Within weeks of its election, the first council had to go through yet another confrontation, this time with censorship.
With the advent of World War II in 1939, censorship was strictly imposed on "war-related" material, with the decision on what constituted such material, naturally, in the censor's hands -- and the council issuing a motion contending such authority and insisting that any censorship should be undertaken in accordance with the law. "All 12 members agreed that everyone, those who voted for the motion and those who voted against it, should sign a statement including the text of the motion to be published in all the papers to give the motion added weight," Mahmoud recalls. The censor suppressed publication of the statement, and so the journalists sought to circumvent him by taking it to the upper chamber of parliament, the House of Senates, where Mohamed Hussein Heikal, speaker of the house, read it, thereby enabling its publication as a parliamentary document.
Until 1951, when in its final throes, the monarchy tried to promulgate a law curtailing freedom of the press -- rumours of what the king was doing on his way to Europe, prior to his wedding to Queen Nariman, had found their way to the newspapers -- journalists enjoyed a stretch of relative freedom. Farouk asked the Wafd Party in government to do something.
"A dilemma for the leadership of the party," as veteran journalist and frequent member of the syndicate council Salah Issa puts it: "Wafd leaders were torn between their democratic convictions and the need to be courteous to the king. Hence party leadership asked one Wafd member, Istefan Basili, to propose a draft law in his own name and not as a government bill." The bill was severely attacked by all newspapers including the Wafd's own mouthpiece Al-Masry; the syndicate took a firm stance and many newspapers were suspended, and the bill was dropped.
WAR ON CENSORSHIP: Suspending publication had been used since long before 1951 as a weapon against censorship -- with the advent of WWI in 1914, as previously mentioned, when the Khedive deemed pro-German was deposed and Egypt declared a protectorate. Again, six years later when Field-Marshal Allenby decreed, in the vain hope of suppressing protests against Zaghloul's exile, that all published material should be pre-reviewed by the censors prior to issuing, many newspapers suspended publication.
After the 1923 Constitution was passed, it was frequently suspended or subverted through deliberate loopholes in its articles. According to Issa, "Article 15 of that constitution regarding the press stipulated that the press was free and could only be confiscated or censored when "social order" was at risk. This article lent itself to various interpretations... While some believed that this article addressed legislators rather than the judiciary, others differed. At any rate, it was often used by those in power to curtail freedom of the press. In 1946, for instance, under Ismail Sidkki's government, it was used to close down 11 newspapers. And the Wafd government itself used it to revoke the license of a newspaper issued by the Young Egypt Party. Indeed, party leadership filed a legal complaint at the State Council arguing that Article 15 could not be enacted without legislation regulating the confiscation or closing down of newspapers, and obtained a ruling to that effect."
ENTER THE MILITARY: The 1952 Revolution brought with it a strong inclination, as Issa puts it, "to maximize state control of and interference in all representative bodies, and continuous attempts to tighten the regime's grip on the press. A military censor replaced the civil censor in place with the declaration of martial law following the burning down of Cairo in January 1952."
But the Press Syndicate continued to fight for its freedom. A stormy general assembly in 1953 did little to protect the independence of the press until the March 1954 Crisis, when censorship was lifted for two months, but the situation went downhill again when journalists called for the return of the officers to their barracks. During the crisis, when the syndicate called for ending martial law, the council was dissolved by decree of the Revolution's Command Council (RCC), the highest authority representing the officers in power.
Seven council members were -- unjustly, according to Issa -- charged with receiving secret funds from the pre-1952 regime. In 1955 the officers issued another decree barring newspaper owners from the syndicate. "This," says Issa, "stemmed from the regime believing that, while publishers were more concerned about press freedom, their employees focussed on wages and financial benefits."
In 1960, while private ownership of newspapers was banned and all media outlets nationalised, with major press establishments like Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar, Rose Al-Youssef, Dar Al-Hilal, Dar Al-Tahrir becoming state property, the picture altered radically. One major consequence was that journalists became state employees virtually overnight. "The syndicate put up no resistance," says Issa. "In fact journalists were happy with the nationalisation because of issues related to job security, pension and the like. And this is what the case has been till the present moment."
But journalists never stopped lobbying for greater freedom of the press, albeit in a less vocal form. In May 1962, the late Hussein Fahmy, then Syndicate Chairman, criticised the regime's attempt to bring all journalists in line with the result that general assemblies in 1962 and 1963 were cancelled and the union elections indefinitely postponed. On more than one occasion, in fact, the Syndicate fought against proposals for regulating the press made by the Arab Socialist Union, the country's only party under Nasser.
In 1966 and 1967, the regime responded more harshly, with the elected council dissolved and a provisional committee appointed in its place with the head of the Appeal Court at the helm. In a special issue published by the syndicate commemorating its 40th anniversary in 1981, one article recalls the struggle against censorship of those days: "In 1964 the First General Conference for Journalists called for freedom of the press, a call voiced again by the Syndicate Council in February 1968 following the imposition of censorship in the aftermath of the 1967 defeat. Then the council argued that overcoming the defeat required freedom. The Syndicate held this position steadfastly until censorship was lifted following the 1973 October War."
THE AGE OF PLURALISM: On 10 September 1970, less than three weeks before he died, President Nasser signed a presidential decree stipulating the abrogation of law 185 issued in 1955, which together with the 1960 laws regulating ownership of the press had governed all press activities since his ascendancy to power. Indeed this was the last document signed by Nasser before his sudden death on 28 September. The 1970 law is in place until the present day.
Veteran journalist and frequent member of the syndicate council Sami Mansour praises the 1970 law for "upgrading" the role of the syndicate and making it central to issues related to the profession. After 1970, no journalist could be subject to interrogation or trial without the presence of a syndicate representative. "The law also made holding a university degree a prerequisite to enrollment in the syndicate, which definitely improved performance. It also gave the syndicate the power to decide on enrollment through a special committee."
For his part Issa points to the fact that, by making the general assembly rather than the council elect the chairman, the 1970 law placed too much authority in the hands of one person: "What is deadly about this is that no meeting of the council is legitimate if it is not convened by the chairman or a delegate of his."
But more battles were at hand after President Sadat eliminated the old guard in his 1971 "May Corrective Revolution"; by December student protests were sweeping campuses all across the country, and intellectuals including such figures of stature as Tawfik El-Hakim, Naguib Mahfouz and Youssef Idriss issued a statement supporting the students' demands for social justice and war to liberate the then occupied Sinai Peninsula in January 1972.
Six of these figures, including Idriss, were members of the Press Syndicate Council, and together with tens of other journalists, all were referred to a disciplinary committee of the Arab Socialist Union, which barred them from practising the profession and transferred their employment to the State Information Bureau. The Syndicate stood by its members until, on 28 September 1973, Sadat annulled the decision, ordering the return of the journalists to the publications with which they had been affiliated.
By the end of the seventies, several laws regulating the practice of the profession had been proposed, and the stance of the syndicate was always in support of the freedom to issue newspapers and freedom of expression. The syndicate assumed full responsibility for its members, arguing against imprisonment for "publication offences".
In 1980, a new law re-organising ownership of the press was decreed. The Arab Socialist Union, the former owner of all newspapers, had by now been abolished and ownership of newspapers was transferred to the upper chamber of parliament, the Shura Council. A Higher Press Council was set up and was given some of the powers of the Syndicate. "This," says Issa, "was President Sadat's last attempt to diminish the powers of the union, especially when it came to straightening out unruly journalists. But the 1971 Constitution stood in the way as it dictated that syndicates draw up their own codes of conduct and question their members accordingly."
In September 1981, when Sadat clamped down on the opposition, journalists were no exception. Many were sent to prison and scores were transferred to the State Information Bureau. This ordeal was not to last, however, since Sadat was assassinated on 6 October 1981, and President Mubarak commenced his first term in office by annulling all the disciplinary measures taken against the opposition.
It was not until 1995 that a new battle ensued, when the regime sought to introduce law no. 93 issued in 1995 regulating press practice. The law stiffened the penalties and fines for publication offences, and though it was frequently claimed that such measures would never in fact be taken, many thought journalists should not be left in the open, at the mercy of those in power; rights, they sensibly argued, should be fully legalised.
An emergency general assembly convened in protest of the law and decided to suspend publication of newspapers, mandating the Syndicate Council to negotiate with the government to abolish the law, and pursuing its meeting for 13 more months, President Mubarak was convinced he should act as the judge on that issue. However, imprisonment as a punishment for libel could not be done away altogether, and the compromise was laws 95 and 96 issued in the year 1996, which though less repressive are viewed by many including veteran journalist Salah Eddin Hafez as less than a model of freedom.
"The march towards more freedom has achieved some gains," Hafez says, "but many loopholes are still clearly visible in the law dealing with journalism and journalists."
First Syndicate Council
December 1941-December 1942
Mahmoud Abul-Fath (chairman)
Mohamed Abdel-Kader Hamza
Ahmed Kassem Gouda
Ibrahim Abdel-Kader El-Mazini
Mohamed Fekry Abaza
Anton Gumail (later replaced by Kamel El-Shenawi)
WHEN THE RIGHT of forming professional unions was legalised in 1941, Mahmoud Abul-Fath, representing 124 journalists, filed an application for the formation of the Press Syndicate. The request was granted subject to journalists providing a suitable premises for their union. Abul-Fath donated a flat he owned on Sherif St. in downtown Cairo.
In 1942, and as membership in the union was on the rise, Abul-Fath's flat was not spacious enough to host the union's general meeting. The meeting was held at the Bar Association on Ramsis St. Adjacent to the Bar Association on the side of Abdel-Khaliq Sarwat St., was an empty lot of land used as barracks for the British army. Journalists decided to ask the state to lease this land for them to build on it a suitable premises for their union. This request had to wait until the end of WWII. As a temporary solution, the Wafd government took the decision of evicting a gambling casino occupying a one-story building on 33 Kasr El-Nile St., thus providing a temporary premises for the Press Syndicate.
Following the end of the war, the Abdel-Khaliq Sarwat St. empty land was leased out to the Press Syndicate for the duration of 99 years, for the nominal fee of one Egyptian pound annually. Journalists raised the cost of building, completed in 1949 and inaugurated by King Farouk on 31 March of that year. In 1981 President Mubarak issued a presidential decree making the Press Syndicate the owner of this piece of land.
In the 1990s, and as membership extended beyond the capacity of the premises, plans for the demolition of the old 1949 villa began and the foundation stone for a new larger building was laid on 10 June 1997. The present premises of the Press Syndicate was opened in 2002.
Laws organising union and press work:
1941: Law 10 establishing the Press Syndicate.
1955: Law 185 organising the work of the syndicate.
1960: Law 156 organising ownership of the press.
1970: Law 76 organising work of the Press Syndicate.
1980: Law 148 re-organising ownership of the press.
1993: Law100 organising professional unions elections.
1995: Law 93 stipulating harsher penalties for publishing offences.
1996: Laws 95 and 96 replacing law 93.