Drawing battle lines
The build-up to Press Syndicate elections began with the announcement last week by the incumbent Chairman Makram Mohamed Ahmedthat he intends to stand for a second two- year term. On the other hand, journalists from the independent group decided to field a candidate, who is widely reported to be Diaa Rashwan, an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
"My decision to run stems from my desire to implement the platform I announced before the last elections," Ahmed, elected chairman of the syndicate in November 2007, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The syndicate's board persuaded me to stand for a second term."
Ahmed's campaign is based on providing economic services to journalists as well as on promises of new legislation to protect them.
"I plan to build a residential area for journalists on 42 feddans in 6 October governorate. The syndicate has already paid for the plot of land and construction works will start soon."
Ahmed has promised to press the Higher Press Council into agreeing to continue paying journalists' allowances for 18 months should the newspapers in which they work fold. "I am also promoting a new law under which newspapers will be obliged to appoint trainees within a maximum period of three years," he added.
Ahmed boasts of forcing newly established private newspapers into signing contracts with young journalists.
"Many young journalists were treated unfairly by their newspapers and deprived of basic rights. Now the syndicate is enforcing a set of regulations that includes a minimum monthly payment of LE500 to journalists," he said.
Ahmed has also pledged to work towards amending the current Press Syndicate law. "Currently there are no conditions set for journalists seeking to join the syndicate. We want to establish basic criteria of fluency and efficiency."
The 68-year-old syndicate has long sought to introduce a freedom of information law yet despite the fact current Press Syndicate legislation includes a paragraph guaranteeing access to information no functional mechanism exists to ensure such access in practice.
"A draft information accessibility law was being prepared by the Cabinet's Decision-Support Centre and the syndicate has criticised many of its articles," Ahmed points out, adding that journalists need a law that reveals information, not one that prevents access to it.
Ahmed believes Egypt should follow the Indian model as far as access to information is concerned. "If a journalist was denied access to a piece of information, the concerned body should provide a written statement explaining why this information was not provided," he says. "We do not need a complex bureaucratic body. We need an information officer on the state and governorate levels to help journalists get access to information accurately and quickly."
Egypt has been repeatedly criticised by international press and human rights organisations for failing to protect journalists from custodial sentences. Last year Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in- chief of the independent daily Al-Dostour, was sentenced to six months in prison with hard labour for reporting rumours about President Hosni Mubarak's health. He was subsequently granted a presidential pardon. Four other editors-in-chief are still facing prison sentences for allegedly disseminating false information or tarnishing the image of government and ruling National Democratic Party figures. The Press Syndicate has always been blamed for failing to persuade the government to amend the Penal Code in a way that protects journalists.
"We have made advances with regard to prison sentences," claims Ahmed. "Now judges no longer resort to issuing prison sentences and have replaced them with fines. The government has asked for a code of conduct for journalists and we are in the process of putting one together."
Though Ahmed remains the only candidate to have so far announced an intention to stand, rumours are rife that journalists seeking greater independence for the syndicate will field a candidate of their own.
"We want to free the syndicate from any government or partisan affiliation," says Rashwan.
Rashwan has criticised Ahmed for asking the prime minister to raise the allowances paid to journalists following his election. "It is a ploy government candidates always use. It leaves the syndicate dependent on the government," says Rashwan.
The strategy of those journalists seeking a more independent professional union, says Rashwan, is to empower the general assembly, not just elect a new chairman.
"If you have a strong general assembly, you will have a strong chairman and a powerful syndicate."