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With Egypt's media sliding deeper into chaos, pressing need for new laws arises

Yehia Kalash, the head of Egypt's press syndicate, says the media landscape is more in need of overhaul than ever

Ayat Al Tawy , Thursday 3 Mar 2016
Yehia Qalash
Head of Egypt's press syndicate Yehia Kalash (Photo: Yehia Kalash official Facebook page)
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Views: 3414

The chief of Egypt's press union believes the country's media landscape is spiralling deeper into disarray as a result of political turmoil unleashed by the 2011 revolution, saying regulatory legislation is necessary to overhaul the industry.

Egyptian media outlets have in recent years been faulted by many observers for ethical decline, sponsoring propaganda and hyper-nationalistic fervour as well as bias against government critics.

Yehia Kalash, the veteran journalist who heads the 75-year-old press syndicate, has been at the forefront of efforts to draw up laws he says are necessary to put the brakes on "chaos" in the media by guaranteeing oversight and legal accountability while preserving basic rights and freedoms.

Kalash, 61, was part of a 50-strong committee of press leaders and law professors that drafted a major unified law that regulates press and media operation. The government is due to discuss the draft bill, completed in August 2015, to reach a final version that will then be submitted to parliament for approval.

While authorities say the bill will not be enacted without complete consent from the media community, Kallash remains sceptical.

"We're facing obstacles [from authorities] on the ground," Kalash, who has for almost two decades campaigned for broader press freedoms and better social conditions for writers, told Ahram Online.

The 213-article bill establishes a higher media council and two separate national authorities governing public and private media organisations. It includes provisions guaranteeing press independence and others banning monopoly of TV channels and papers, setting a maximum share of 10 percent for an individual.

The law imposes fines on violating news organisations, and subjects both private and public media to legal governance.

Kalash said officials have given no timeframe for passing the law.

The same 50-member assembly has drafted another bill which would establish the first union for media personnel working in TV, radio or for online outlets. The law was approved by the government late in 2015 and is planned to be referred to parliament for final endorsement.

"A key part of regulating a sphere as precarious and influential in shaping public opinion as media is having a union for its personnel," said Kalash, a former writer at state-run Al-Gomhouria newspaper.

TV and radio staffers have for decades operated without a union to safeguard their occupational rights or monitor performance.

The long-awaited syndicate will lay down professional standards, issue operation licences, establish an honour code and hold violators accountable, a role Kalash says will overhaul the media spectrum, and specifically unruly TV channels.

The press syndicate will look at the new draft legislation as well as other issues including press freedoms and rates of pay for journalists during a general assembly it will convene Friday morning at its headquarters in central Cairo.

Rights and freedoms

Establishing the much-needed legal mechanism for the industry is not the only major challenge facing Kalash.

An active unionist since the 1980s, Kalash lobbied hard under ousted president Hosni Mubarak against the jailing of journalists, a cause he has continued to support.

He says 27 journalists are currently behind bars in Egypt, with some sentenced to prison for publishing “false news” and belonging to the banned group the Muslim Brotherhood. Others are standing trial on similar charges or are still in pre-trial detention.

Several media figures have also received jail sentences in recent months for charges including "contempt for religion."

"We will continue to press towards banning jail over publishing-related charges in the new legislation," said Kalash, who in the past wrote against security crackdown on freedom of the press and expression.

"Press freedom is a tool of general freedoms; it doesn’t belong to journalists alone."

Freedom of expression is enshrined in Egypt's 2014 constitution, which states that jounalists, writers and artists should not be imprisoned for their work.

In its report in December, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said Egypt was the second-worst jailer of journalists worldwide in 2015, after China.

Kalash is pushing towards winning a presidential pardon for some of the imprisoned journalists, saying his union has pleaded with Egypt's top prosecutor and the interior ministry on the matter.

Most demoralising to Kalash is the fact that it is not only those behind bars whose freedom is crippled.

"A writer who cannot secure a living will not be able to secure his own freedom, that's the most dangerous part about journalism," he said, in reference to low pay for journalists.

He is worried that the economic grievances journalists harbour could open the field to wealthy businessmen or lead to harnessing media as a soft power via foreign funding from unknown-sources.

Kalash and other observers complain that while salaries in other sectors including the judiciary, army and police have been restructured following the 2011 uprising, those of journalists have been neglected.

The government has promised to revive in the coming months a committee of senior journalists and planning ministry experts tasked with drawing up a new scheme to set a higher minimum wage for journalists.

"Those shaping public opinion should not be struggling socially and financially," says Kalash.

"It is a matter of national security."

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