Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The Press Syndicate: Campaigning for freedom of expression

The headquarters of the Press Syndicate, once a bastion of protest, is struggling to defend the rights of its own members, reports Ahmed Morsy

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The 74-year-old Press Syndicate’s new headquarters opened in 2002. The steps leading to the entrance of the building in downtown Cairo soon became a protest site, the preferred destination of groups from across the political spectrum who staged demonstrations demanding a host of reforms.

The site was thought, sometimes mistakenly, to be safe. The police may have surrounded the demonstrators but those who were protesting knew that any violent dispersal would be in full view of the media and couldn’t be ignored by the press, whose union headquarters was hosting their protest.

Things changed after the 25 January Revolution. Tahrir Square became the focal point for those demanding change, and the steps of the syndicate building were abandoned by activists. But then came the controversial protest law, promulgated in November 2013, which criminalised unlicenced protests.

Under the law, protest organisers must obtain permission from the Ministry of Interior before any gathering can be staged. Failure to do so leaves them open to hefty fines and lengthy prison sentences.

The Press Syndicate is once again being perceived as offering if not quite a safe haven for protestors, then at least somewhere where any action against them will be recorded. Ironically, the shift has occurred at a time when the syndicate is struggling to defend the rights and freedoms of its own members.

In the past year the Press Syndicate has issued many statements condemning what it describes as government attacks on freedom. It has filed complaints to the public prosecutor over the arrest of journalists and recently demanded the immediate release of all journalists in detention.

In April, prosecutors summoned Al-Masry Al-Youm’s editor-in-chief, Mahmoud Mosallam, and four journalists, including page editor Youssri Al-Badri. They were called in for questioning after the privately owned newspaper published a seven-page report under the headline “The Police: Martyrs and Sins — Holes in the Official Uniform.”

The story included documented accusations of police brutality and concluded that Interior Ministry personnel were involved in torture, rape, theft and kidnapping.

In June, the editor-in-chief of Youm Sabea, Khaled Salah, and one of the paper’s reporters were charged with publishing false news that threatened public order. They were summoned for questioning after a complaint against them was filed by the Interior Ministry and released on bail later the same day.

In July, a Cairo misdemeanour court handed Magdi Al-Galad, a TV host and editor-in-chief of the privately owned Al-Watan daily, CBC satellite channel owner Mohamed Al-Amin and news producer Wael Saad six-month jail sentences and fines of LE10,000 each after judging them guilty of broadcasting false news. The sentences are currently being appealed.

The case against them began when the Central Auditing Agency accused the Lazem Nefham (We Must Know) talk show of broadcasting a false report over its investigations into the misuse of public funds.

“Journalists are not supposed to be detained for publishing crimes in the first place because to do so violates the constitution,” says Press Syndicate Chairman Yehia Qallash.

In August, the Press Syndicate’s Freedom’s Committee published a statement condemning “the pulling of newspapers from presses and interference in content.” The statement referred to two incidents that occurred that same month.

An issue of Al-Mesryoon newspaper was pulled when some if its content apparently upset “unknown censors”, and an issue of Al-Sabah newspaper was forced to change the text of an opinion piece.

Article 70 of the constitution guarantees “the freedom of the press, publishing and visual and audio broadcasts.” Article 71 states that “no custodial sentence shall be imposed for crimes committed by way of publication or the public nature thereof.” The same article does, however, say penalties imposed for cases involving incitement and discrimination are to be determined by the law.

The constitution forbids the censorship of all media and the confiscation, suspension or closing down of newspapers except “at times of war or public mobilisation.”

The Freedom Committee’s statement noted that “the articles both newspapers’ editors said were pulled from print reported on senior state officials, suggesting that there is now a tendency to establish red lines and prevent the media from reporting on certain people.”

The two incidents came a week after an edition of Sawt Al-Omma newspaper was confiscated. The edition contained a story on the health of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s mother and an expose of a network of corruption involving Mubarak-era figures.

In August, Al-Sisi ratified a new anti-terrorism law that criminalises any media report on terrorism and counter-terrorism operations that contradicts Ministry of Defence statements and imposes a fine of between LE200,000 and LE500,000 on those responsible for the report.

The law also sets a minimum of five years in prison for those found guilty of the “promotion, directly or indirectly, of any perpetration of terrorist crimes, verbally or in writing or by any other means.” It goes on to define “terrorist crimes” as any act that harms “public order, social peace, or national unity.”

The law was immediately denounced by local and international rights groups. The law, says Karem Mahmoud, head of the Press Syndicate’s Legislative Committee, “undermines “journalists’ rights to seek unbiased and accurate information” and “will land them in jail for failing to pay a fine far beyond the means of most journalists and news organisations.”

Following Al-Sisi’s ratification of the law, human rights activist Gamal Eid tweeted: “Midnight laws mark the republic of darkness. A law has been passed which considers all criticism, opinions and acts not to the state’s liking terrorism.”

“Journalists are now banned by law from investigating, verifying or reporting on one of the most important matters of public interest,” said Sherif Mansour, activist and coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The state has made itself the only permissible source of news on these stories.

“Egyptians are entering an Orwellian world in which only the government is allowed to say what is happening. Even in countries where freedom of information is highly restricted, laws rarely suppress pluralism so blatantly,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders.

The 45-member Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, headed by former Press Syndicate chairman Diaa Rashwan, is urging the government to issue the long-delayed unified press and media law drafted by the government’s own advisory committee for press and media legislation. It is the only way, says the committee, to bring media legislation in line with the 2014 Constitution.

In August, the Press Syndicate praised the draft law for “honestly translating constitutional articles guaranteeing media freedom into legislation.”

Galal Aref, who head’s the government’s committee for press legislation, says the proposed law enshrines constitutional guarantees on freedom and independence of expression while also ensuring freedom of information and allowing journalists to protect their sources.

“The 200-article law will end prison sentences for publication cases and guarantee the independence of national press institutions,” Aref said at a press conference held at the Press Syndicate in August.

The draft law specifies criteria for the selection of CEOs and editors-in-chief of state media institutions, many of whose terms end in January, and will ensure that the majority of board members of state-owned news institutions are elected rather than appointed.

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