Monday,20 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)
Monday,20 November, 2017
Issue 1298, (2 - 8 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Crash-course journalism

Press Syndicate Chairman Yehia Qallash and two board members have been referred to trial, reports Mohamed Abdel-Baky

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Prosecutors referred the chairman of the Press Syndicate, Yehia Qallash, and board members Khaled Al-Balshi and Gamal Abdel-Rehim on 30 May to trial on charges of sheltering fugitives in the syndicate’s headquarters and spreading false news.

The trial, which is scheduled to open on 1 June, is expected to deepen the crisis between the government and the Press Syndicate. Earlier this month policemen entered the syndicate building to arrest journalists Mahmoud Al-Sakka and Amr Badr. The crisis has also created a rift between syndicate members, some of whom argue that Qallash and the board have dragged the Press Syndicate into a battle unrelated to protecting the interests of journalists.

Qallash, Abdel-Rehim and Al-Balshi were questioned by the prosecutor late Sunday at Cairo’s Qasr Al-Nil Police Station, where they spent the night after refusing the pay bail.

They refused to pay bail as the law does not require that bail be paid on one of the charges. The charge of spreading false news is not a custodial, and by extension bailable, offence, according to their lawyer Doaa Mustafa.

On Monday night, however, the LE10,000 bail per defendant was paid by lawyer Tarek Negada. “A group of journalists collected the money and asked me to pay it to end a situation, which has become very complicated,” said Negada.

Following his release, Qallash issued a statement reiterating his opposition to the paying of bail. “We declined to pay for the sake of protecting and defending the rights of all journalists,” he said.

Though third parties are legally allowed to post bail for defendants, release documents must be signed by the detainees.

In addition to hiding fugitives, the trio are accused of spreading false news by publishing a report saying that more than 40 policemen stormed the Press Syndicate to arrest Badr and Al-Sakka. The Ministry of Interior says just four policemen were involved. The three journalists could face prison if convicted.

In a memo presented to the prosecutor, Qallash said in his defence that he had not instructed the two journalists to hide in the syndicate headquarters. They entered the building like thousands of other journalists enter every day.

“The syndicate building is not a property I own. It is a public space for all journalists. I am not responsible for the fact the two journalists were inside the building. Nor is that a crime. I did not encourage them to stay or leave,” Qallash said in the memo.

“I am not tasked to arrest fugitives and it is not my job to hand them over to the police. Nor was I informed by the prosecutor of the arrest warrant against the two journalists.”

Amnesty International condemned the legal proceedings and described the accusations faced by the syndicate officials as a “dangerous escalation”. In a statement, the London-based organisation said that detaining Qallash is “an alarming setback for freedom of expression”.

The move against the three comes less than a month after Qallash called for the Interior Minister’s resignation and a presidential apology over the alleged police raid. Qallash later sought to ease the tense standoff by dropping his request for a presidential apology and not repeating the demand for the Interior Minister to step down.

The latest developments have deepened divisions between journalists over the positions adopted by the syndicate. Five board members have announced that they oppose any escalation and accuse Qallash and Balshi of promoting an “inaccurate narrative” of what happened the night Al-Sakka and Badr were arrested.

“The current board and the chairman have led the syndicate into a direct confrontation with state institutions,” said former Press Syndicate chairman Makram Mohamed Ahmed. Many journalists now worry that the syndicate is becoming embroiled in what is in essence a political struggle that could undermine its independence, he added.

“To end the crisis we need a new board and new chairman. I am calling for early elections and I believe many journalists agree with me,” Ahmed said.

Three weeks ago a group of journalists and editors-in-chief met at Al-Ahram to demand that the Press Syndicate change course. They called for a general assembly to be held as a first step towards early elections.

“The Press Syndicate council has dragged journalists into an unnecessary battle with judges, the government and parliament,” said a statement issued following the 8 May meeting.

The statement accused the council and the chairman of acting as a political party and not as a “professional syndicate created to serve and defend journalists”.

Many journalists are now worried that the syndicate could face judicial sequestration. A number of lawyers have already filed complaints to the prosecutor.

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