Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 July 2012
Issue No. 1105
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Pressing the press

Journalists are living a current crisis with the Shura Council. They fear the new criteria for choosing editors-in-chief of different publications would Islamise the country's press, Reem Leila reports

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Journalists protested in front of Al-Ahram building on Tuesday

The country's continuous crises with the government since the 25 January Revolution seems to be non stop. Reporters and journalists are currently witnessing a serious crisis with the Islamist-dominated Shura Council for the nonsense criteria the council has put, according to which editors-in-chief of different publications are to be selected. Journalists are objecting on the formation of the preliminary committee which will choose editors-in-chief. The committee is formed of 14 members, six members of the Shura Council, four veteran journalists and four mass communication university professors.

On Tuesday, more than 200 angry journalists of Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar and Al-Gomhouriya newspapers protested in front of Al-Ahram building. Slogans as "Down, down with the Shura Council," "Down, down with ruling of SCAF", "Down, down with head of Press Syndicate," "Down, down with the Islamisation of press," were chanted by disappointed journalists. After more than two hours of protest, journalists moved to the premises of the Press Syndicate, where they decided to start an open strike in front of the Shura Council on 5 July.

However, the newly elected president Mohamed Mursi met with the board directors and editors-in-chief of newspapers on 28 June, where he reassured them that there will not be any kind of restrictions on the freedom of press, yet journalists are not secured as they fear the consequences of the criteria set by the Shura Council. The council is responsible for choosing and appointing editors-in-chief as well as the board of directors of state-owned newspapers. Under the previous regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, the Shura Council used to benefit of this authority by hiring certain calibers who would serve the government's political agenda.

The whole crisis began when the Shura Council decided to put certain criteria for choosing the editors-in-chief of state-run newspapers. These new measures would affect more than 50 current editors-in-chief. According to the council's criteria, whoever sees himself qualified for the post can submit his papers to the committee. Whoever wants to be editor-in-chief must be with an experience of not less than 15 years, not more than 60-year-old, has spent at least 10 years in the same publication, did not participate in corrupting political life, does not have opinions or writings supporting normalisation with Israel and did not work in the business of press advertisement. Fathi Shehab, head of Culture and Media Committee of the Shura Council, pointed out that an editor-in-chief of any publication would last for three years. "Annual reports will be conducted in case any of the editors was not performing his job properly, he would be immediately eliminated from his post," Shehab said.

According to Shehab, the 14-member committee will screen the candidates for the post. "Screened members will be referred to another committee formed of members of the Shura Council only to select from them those appropriate for the post," said Shehab. After screening, the committee will come up with a short list comprising of three nominees for daily publications and only two for the weekly newspapers.

The Shura Council announced that nominees will be able to submit their papers for a whole week starting 3 July. "None of the members of the second committee which will have the final word will be of the profession. Accordingly, the council is actually the entity which is having the final word of choosing the editors-in-chief. Therefore, journalists have full right to fear the Islamisation of newspapers," said Salah Eissa, a veteran writer.

Shehab believes that the process of selecting new editors-in-chief is due to the deteriorating financial and administrative conditions of these newspapers which resulted from the interference of power in the management of chairmen and editors-in-chief of these publications.

Unlike Shehab, most journalists are against the whole project. "The regulations and criteria which the Shura Council has set them do not suit all journalists," said Eissa. "How are nominees going to be assessed? Most of the 14-member committee are not professionals. How will they judge? Will it be according to their performance as journalists or according to the income they bring to their publications?" asked Eissa.

Veteran writer also raised another important point, the committee has ignored a very important variable in choosing the editor-in chief, which is the nominee's experience in running and managing the publication. "The committee missed this important condition, I wonder why," added Eissa.

At the same time Hisham Younis, member of the Press Syndicate council, believes the Shura Council, though freely elected, should not have any authority or control over state-owned newspapers. In a statement issued by the syndicate, journalists expressed their deep refutation and objections to the council's attempts to interfere in the affairs of state-owned press organisations. The statement stressed the fact that the council's attempt to interfere in the affairs of press institutions raises suspicions regarding its desperate attempt to Islamise the state-owned organisations. "They are playing the same role of the dismantled National Democratic Party, no doubt about that," said Younis. "Journalists will be forced to write what the Islamists like. If they did not, definitely they will be penalised," added Younis.

In the same context, Younis fears that the set criteria will facilitate the appointment of calibers who will be loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood. "No one can hide the fact that many journalists have submitted their papers to join the Freedom and Justice Party. They are hypocrites and weak journalists as they are trying to protect themselves by doing this," said Younis.

At the same time, Eissa is scared of the rise of Islamists to power in Egypt which could easily affect the freedom of expression, especially the press. Eissa said that "it would definitely have a huge negative effect. None of their newspapers was a success, all of them closed after a short while. They have strict restrictions on published photos and advertisements. If they applied this on publications of state-owned organisations, they will be doomed to failure and closure at the end. Is this what they want? I wonder," asked Eissa.

In the time being, journalists are exerting their utmost effort to pressure the Shura Council to preparing a new law on stipulating that state-owned organisations should be affiliated to a National Council which does not have any political preferences. "This is the only way to guarantee independence of the press," said Eissa.

However, things are likely to get more complicated as the Administrative Court will refer a lawsuit filed in front of it to dismantle the Shura Council as in the case of the People's Assembly. Under such a scenario, the issue will be on hold until new elections are held months from now. "The best thing in the time being, is to postpone everything until the issuing of the constitution. We need to figure out what will the constitution do about the profession of journalism and the status of the state-owned organisations. Until then, there will always be the question of, will the rise of Islamists affect freedom of expression?" added Eissa.

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