Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Meeting half way

The stand-off between the Press Syndicate and the Ministry of Interior has entered its third week with no end in sight, reports Mohamed Abdel-Baky

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Al-Ahram Weekly

On 4 May the Press Syndicate hosted one of the largest gatherings of journalists in its history. The emergency assembly, called following a police raid on the syndicate’s headquarters, saw journalists divided on how to tackle the crisis.

Many journalists believe the syndicate’s council, led by chairman Yehia Qallash, set the bar too high by demanding that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi issue an official apology to all journalists and sack Minister of Interior Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar.

A week after the assembly, many syndicate members are pressing for a second emergency meeting to find a way out of the stand-off between the syndicate and Ministry of Interior.

The call for a second general assembly was voiced during a meeting held at Al-Ahram attended by former and current editors-in-chief of private and state-run newspapers. Participants at the 8 May meeting said a second emergency general assembly should withdraw confidence from the current council of the Press Syndicate and force early elections.

“The current Press Syndicate council has dragged journalists into an unnecessary battle with the pillars of the state, the judges, government and parliament, and it is time that big press institutions regained their balance and take the lead in finding a way out of this crisis,” said a statement issued following the meeting.

The statement added that the council and the chairman had acted as a political party, not as a “professional syndicate created to serve and defend journalists”.

“In beginning all of us were with the syndicate council. Then we discovered that there is a twisting of the facts in order to politicise the crisis between the syndicate and the minister of interior. The council keeps issuing hostile statements against all state institutions, closing any space in which mediators could work,” the statement said.

“Our job as journalists is to report the news to the people not to act as activists or politicians.”

Five council members Mohamed Shabana, Hatem Zakarya, Khaled Meiry, Alaa Thabet and Ibrahim Abu Kaila attended the meeting.

On Sunday Zakarya submitted his resignation from the syndicate council to protest the “dictatorship of the group which has taken over the council,” according to his resignation letter. He then quickly withdrew his resignation.

The statement claimed the Press Syndicate’s general assembly meeting was held illegally and, because of this, its recommendations are not binding on journalists.

Journalists who support the current council have started their own campaign to collect signatures to demand that an emergency general assembly meeting be held to renew trust in the council and support the decisions taken by the Press Syndicate.

The syndicate’s council has yet to respond to the Al-Ahram meeting though its secretary-general, Gamal Abdel-Rahim, told Al-AhramWeekly that he and all the council members respected the journalists who attended the meeting.

“We believe they have the right to disagree with the council and to call for a general assembly meeting. This is a right given by the law to all members of the syndicate,” Abdel-Rahim said.

He then pointed out that Law 70 of 1970 does not include any provisions to withdraw confidence from the council, something that has never been done in the 75-year history of the syndicate.

The government-appointed Higher Press Council also entered the fray, issuing a statement condemning what it termed “the blockade imposed by police on the Journalists Syndicate building in Cairo” and declaring complete solidarity with the journalists.

The council called on the authorities to “immediately end the siege and act in a responsible, appropriate manner”. The statement was issued as security forces closed off roads leading to the syndicate to prevent public figures and the members of other professional syndicates from accessing the building to show solidarity with the ongoing sit-in by journalists.

Differences between journalists mean there is little pressure on the government to change its position on the crisis. Officials continue to ignore the Press Syndicate’s demands and are promoting the line that the current Press Syndicate’s council was illegally sheltering two journalists facing criminal charges.

If anything, the Ministry of Interior’s stance has hardened since the general prosecutor issued a statement saying that police acted within their rights when they entered the building.

Many privately owned TV stations and newspapers have turned against the Press Syndicate. Al-Youm Al-Sabei newspaper, which stood by the syndicate at the beginning of the crisis, published an apology for its position on 7 May.

“I was deceived by syndicate council members who twisted the facts about what happened on 1 May. I do not agree with our beloved syndicate being used in a dangerous political game, especially during the critical times the country is passing through,” Khaled Salah, editor-in-chief of Al-Youm Al-Sabei, said during an interview broadcast on Al-Nahar channel.

By Sunday the Press Syndicate’s council appeared to be playing down earlier talk of escalation. It issued a statement postponing for a week a general assembly meeting planned for 10 May to discuss strike action.

The statement said the delay was to allow “all parties and mediators, whether inside or outside parliament, to make an effort to resolve the crisis”. It stressed that the Press Syndicate respects all state institutions, including the presidency.

“Journalists will never be above the law. Our goal since the beginning of the crisis has been to defend the rule of law and reject the violation of the dignity of journalists,” the statement said.

“Our cause is professional. We abide by the law, which prohibits the inspection of the syndicate without the presence of both a representative of the general prosecution and the syndicate chairman. This is a legal procedure that does not differ from other laws stipulating restrictions on inspections of the houses of judges, prosecutors and other members of the judiciary.”

But any hopes among Press Syndicate council members that parliament would help end the crisis were dashed on 9 May when parliamentary speaker Ali Abdel-Aal said the arrest by security forces of two journalists from the syndicate was legal and should not be referred to as a “raid”.

“It would be an exaggeration for the syndicate to use the words ‘raid’ or ‘violating the sanctity’ of the building of the syndicate to describe what happened,” said Abdel-Aal.

“Those who entered the building were simply implementing the law… the syndicate council should not have given sanctuary to those who were sought by prosecution authorities for questioning,” said Abdel-Aal.

“All state bodies should help the judicial and prosecution authorities implement the law rather than stand against it,” he added. “I cannot imagine that the Press Syndicate would choose to oppose the law. The main message of the syndicate should always to promote the rule of law.”

MPs have opted to refer the issue to parliament’s Media and Culture Committee. Abdel-Aal has recommended that the committee invite representatives from all concerned institutions, including the Press Syndicate and the Interior Ministry, to meet in a bid to find a way out of the crisis.

“The committee should help both parties find common ground and then prepare a report to be discussed by MPs,” said Abdel-Aal.

The crisis erupted on 1 May night when a group of police officers entered the Press Syndicate to arrest journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud Al-Sakka. The two work for January Gate, a website critical of the government. They had begun their own sit-in at the syndicate headquarters after discovering that the police had searched their homes days before they were arrested.

Prosecutors ordered the detention of Badr and Al-Sakka for 15 days on 2 May, pending investigations on charges that include spreading false news, harming national unity and plotting to suspend the constitution.

Prosecutors say they issued an arrest warrant for the two journalists and seven others on 19 April based on police claims that all nine “were in possession of firearms and Molotov cocktails with the aim of carrying out attacks on police, army forces and vital facilities”.

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