The result of any Press Syndicate election for its chairmanship has always been difficult to predict. The upcoming election is no exception.
Seven candidates are vying for the syndicate’s leadership in an election scheduled for 3 March: Sayed Al-Eskandarani and Naima Rashed from the daily Al-Gomhouriya, Jehan Shaarawi from Al-Ahram, Islam Kamal from Rose Al-Youssef, Talaat Hashem from Misr Al-Fatah, Al-Ahram Managing Editor Abdel-Mohsen Salama and current syndicate chairman Yehia Qallash. Seventy journalists are also competing for six seats in the syndicate’ council, including 12 women.
Salama and Qallash are the heavy favourites. Qallash, who has campaigned on matters of press freedom and journalist rights since the 1980s, participated in the establishment of the National Committee for Defending Freedom of Expression and served as its spokesman during Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, speaking out against attacks on the freedoms and rights of the media. Salama is a former undersecretary of the Press Syndicate and has been an elected member of Al-Ahram board since 2010.
Salama ran for the presidency of the syndicate in the 2013 elections but lost to Diaa Rashwan who in 2015 failed to win a second term as head of the syndicate after losing to Qallash.
Qallash says he finds it his duty to run again “based on what we achieved in the past two years and the upcoming challenges that await us en route to completing what we started and to ensure continued momentum in the spirit of the syndicate. These elections are exceptional as our choices will determine the future of this institution which has always stood firm in the face of crises,” Qallash told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“I am running to save journalism and to work on recapturing the prestige of the syndicate and its journalists,” Salama told the Weekly.
Salama said he believed there is a severe decline in the role of the syndicate as its current head and council “failed in most of the files. We are witnessing deterioration in the working and financial conditions of journalists and the leaders of the syndicate have not lifted a finger,” he said.
He said hundreds of young journalists have become jobless after the austerity measures taken by financially challenged newspapers while “the role of the syndicate to protect them is absent”.
Qallash rebuffed the accusation. “A unified working contract has been adopted which has allowed the syndicate to act as a third party between a journalist and his newspaper, so that it acts on his behalf and protect his rights. Hence, the termination of a journalist’s job or changing the contract’s terms can only be legal in the presence of the syndicate’s representatives who also represent him in all disputes.
“Moreover, it was agreed with the Ministry of Social Solidarity that no contract can be terminated without the syndicate’s ratification,” Qallash said.
On legislation, Salama says the syndicate failed miserably during the previous tenure. “It hasn’t passed any legislation it was responsible for,” he said, adding that even the bylaws of the syndicate are unconstitutional and dated back to 1970 when they were drafted.
“The claim is unfounded,” Qallash retorted. “It might be because of the phenomenon of systematic immigration of the syndicate that leads to the lack of knowledge of its ongoing activities, files and events.
“We have drawn up a unified draft law for journalism and the media. It was the fruit of great efforts exerted by the former and current council of the syndicate as well as a 50-member committee. I myself, early in my tenure, asked Salama for his opinion and proposals for the draft and he responded but later he chose a different path in which he became a dagger in the back of the syndicate and tried with others to obstruct the work of the legislative committee,” Qallash said. Regarding the bylaws of the syndicate, he said amendments were underway after conducting several brainstorming sessions. “Afterwards we formed a committee of the syndicate members to draft the bylaws.
“We also drafted another law that cancels the imprisonment of journalists and presented it to the Ministry of Justice,” Qallash added. Likewise, Salama promised to work hard to prevent the imprisonment of journalists but to respect the judiciary and its verdicts.
There are 26 journalists currently detained in Egypt. In the first batch of presidential pardons announced in November last year, which included 82 prisoners, journalist Abdel-Aziz Mahmoud and photojournalist Mohamed Ali Salah were among the detainees granted pardons. Qallash promised that the pending second and third lists will include a larger number of journalists to be pardoned.
On the ruling in which Qallash and board members Khaled Al-Balshi, currently running for a board seat, and Gamal Abdel-Rehim were sentenced to two years in prison and were freed on bail pending an appeal, Salama said the syndicate’s leaders were a party to the crisis instead of being part of the solution.
The case is linked to protests against the agreement signed between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in April last year which ceded Egypt’s control over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Riyadh. Amr Badr, who is running for a board seat in next week’s elections, and Mahmoud Al-Sakka are two journalists who opposed the agreement. To protest against an arrest warrant issued against them on charges of organising unlicensed demonstrations against the islands deal, the two, who work for the news website Yanayer (January), announced they would hold a sit-in at the headquarters of the Press Syndicate. They then sought refuge in the syndicate’s headquarters where they were arrested.
On 29 May Qallash, Al-Balshi and Abdel-Rehim were summoned for questioning and eventually charged with harbouring two fugitives. Badr and Al-Sakka said using the syndicate as sanctuary was part of a long-standing tradition by which Egyptian journalists seek the syndicate’s help when facing legal problems related to their work.
Qallash expressed pride in standing trial and being given a two-year prison sentence for the sake of defending the profession and the syndicate. “I am not a political leader and never used the syndicate to raise political slogans,” he said.
In light of being dubbed by some as “the state candidate”, Salama criticised Qallash’s bravado as “idle gossip”. “The state is the homeland, not an enemy country. Am I supposed to be confronting the state and its institutions?” he asked, indirectly referring to Qallash who put the syndicate and the Interior Ministry on a collision course following its unprecedented raid on the syndicate headquarters, without seeking the permission of the Press Syndicate’s head, when it arrested Badr and Al-Sakka.
Qallash said a distinction should be made between the Egyptian state to which “we all belong” and disagreeing with one of its institutions.
Trying to prove his point that there is no confrontation or estrangement with the state, Qallash said, “We have managed to fix the financial imbalance in the syndicate’s budget so that it is now the biggest in its history. We have succeeded in securing additional resources amounting to LE62 million from several sources. The state is at the forefront of them with unprecedented financial support to the syndicate estimated at LE45 million.”
Salama promised to raise the training and technology allowance given to journalists on a monthly basis, which currently stands at LE1,150. He also promised to raise pensions. “The current council of the syndicate didn’t play its role to improve the financial situation of journalists,” Salama said.
“The monthly allowance is expected to increase anyway as a result of the efforts of the current council. We made huge efforts in this issue and that resulted in forming a governmental committee by representatives from the syndicate, Ministry of Finance and the Supreme Press Council to discuss the financial situation of journalists,” he said, adding that in January the committee submitted its report to the prime minister recommending a yearly increase in the monthly allowance.
“Moreover, we have managed to raise the value of interest-free loans from LE3,000 to LE5,000, and for newly-married journalists to LE10,000. We have also raised the pension of journalists from LE1,000 to LE1,150.
“We have also increased the syndicate’s health insurance from LE15,000 to LE20,000 and added new hospitals, including that of the Armed Forces,” Qallash said.
Salama said he believed the syndicate must have a role to play in the deteriorating journalism industry in Egypt. “The printed press is suffering while the current council of the syndicate is absent. Newspaper circulation has dropped to 50 per cent. Most newspapers are suffering from high printing costs due to the increasing price of paper and ink.”
“I promise to intervene and persuade the state to subsidise the printing of newspapers in terms of paper and ink to ease the burden of newspapers. The state should subsidise newspapers as it does food. The press is no less important,” Salama said.
“Newspapers and their chief editors have been requesting subsidies from the government for years. The syndicate’s role is to focus on the journalists themselves in terms of their professional and financial aspects,” Qallash said, adding that in just one year, 2016, they held 40 workshops that trained 800 journalists.