Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Press polls

Tomorrow’s Press Syndicate elections cast a spotlight on the conditions in which journalists work and on freedom of expression

Archival photo of Abdel-Rehim, Qallash and Al-Balshi during a protest last year
Archival photo of Abdel-Rehim, Qallash and Al-Balshi during a protest last year

For the Press Syndicate to elect a chairman and six council members on Friday 3 March half of the nearly 8,500 syndicate members will need to attend the General Assembly. Should the syndicate fail to garner a quorum a second round of voting is scheduled for 17 March when just 25 per cent of members need to turn up.

Of the seven candidates competing for the post of chairman outgoing syndicate head Yehia Qallash and Al-Ahram Managing Editor Abdel-Mohsen Salama are the frontrunners. The six seats up for grabs on the syndicate’s 12-member council are being fought over by 70 journalists.

The elections are being held at a critical time and the results will determine the relationship between the state and the syndicate after months of tension. While Salama’s campaign has focused on improving the financial and professional status of journalists Qallash has pledged to continue the battle to secure press freedoms.

Meanwhile, Qasr Al-Nil Misdemeanours Appeals Court decided on Saturday to postpone its final ruling on the appeal filed by Press Syndicate Chairman Yehia Qallash and board members Khaled Al-Balshi and Gamal Abdel-Rehim against the sentence passed against them until 25 March.

In November Qallash, together with Al-Balshi, head of the syndicate’s Freedoms Committee, and Abdel-Rehim, syndicate secretary-general, were sentenced to two years in prison after being found guilty of harbouring two wanted colleagues inside the syndicate’s premises. All three were released on LE10,000 bail, pending appeal. Al-Balshi and Abdel-Rehim are both standing for a second term as council members.

The story dates back to 1 May when police raided the syndicate and arrested journalist Amr Badr and free-lancer Mahmoud Al-Saqqa. The two men, wanted on charges of calling for unlicensed protests against the ceding of Tiran and Sanafir islands, were released after spending four and five months in custody respectively.

In the wake of the police raid on the syndicate’s headquarters a general assembly was convened which demanded the resignation of the interior minister and an apology from the presidency. Qallash, Al-Balshi and Abdel-Rehim’s handling of the crisis triggered divisions among journalists and their referral to trial marked a new low in relations between the state and the syndicate. Some journalists accused Qallash of politicising the crisis and antagonising state institutions while others supported the stance of the council in defending their 75-year-old syndicate.

Following Saturday’s announcement of the delay in issuing a ruling on the appeal Qallash addressed journalists, saying “the ruling has become yours”.

“It concerns the Press Syndicate rather than any individuals. While the fate of the individuals should be left to courts the ruling, and how it impacts on the future of the syndicate, concerns all general assembly members and those who defend our profession.”

“This is a time for courageous confrontation that will determine the destiny of the syndicate.”

On Saturday, dozens of journalists were present at the syndicate’s headquarters ahead of the scheduled announcement of the ruling in solidarity with the three defendants.

Al-Balshi told reporters that he was prepared to be jailed but for now would deal with “the situation as it is”.

“We will continue our election campaign and focus on defending the rights and interests of our colleagues,” Al-Balshi said. He added that he did not think the delay in the appeal verdict was an attempt to pressure the defendants to abandon their candidacies.

Asked about the legal status if the 25 March appeal ruling upheld the sentence passed against the three men, one or more of whom might have succeeded in the elections, Sayed Abu Zeid, the Press Syndicate’s legal advisor, said syndicate regulations would apply though he declined to provide details.

“The issue is sensitive, especially so given we are in the midst of elections,” said Abu Zeid. He warned that statements issued now could be misinterpreted and affect the outcome of the vote.

“The future of the syndicate should be uppermost in our minds. It is much more important than any individual.”

Salama, a former undersecretary of the Press Syndicate and an elected member of Al-Ahram’s board since 2010, said he believed there had been a severe deterioration in the syndicate’s performance in protecting the rights of journalists.

“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 while campaigning.

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