Thousands of journalists took part in the first post-revolution Journalists’ Syndicate elections Wednesday, hoping to attain the long sought-after press independence that journalists were deprived of under the 30-year regime of toppled president Hosni Mubarak.
It is believed the now defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) influenced previous Journalists’ Syndicate elections, limiting the ability of the syndicate’s union to fight for more press freedom.
“The obvious difference between these [biennial] elections and the previous ones is that authorities are not controlling it,” Ahmed Yassin, a MENA editor who went to the syndicate to vote, told Ahram Online. “In the previous elections, Makram Mohamed won the chairman seat after a meeting with Safwat El-Sherif (ex-secretary general of the NDP and one of Mubarak’s most powerful henchmen).
“El-Sherif met with [then Prime Minister Ahmed] Nazif who later decided to raise the technology bonus by LE200, and that’s why Makram won and Diaa Rashwan [the then second main candidate for the position] lost. This time the elections won’t be directed by anyone.”
Nonetheless, complete freedom of press and media is still in question.
The two main candidates running for the Syndicate chairman’s seat are Mamdouh El-Waly and Yehia Qallash. Both men have been members of the syndicate's board for years, and they have both fought many battles in support of freedom of the press.
However, El-Waly is widely believed to be supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, although he repeatedly denied being linked with the Islamic group. Some journalists fear the Brotherhood will have an impact on the Journalists’ Syndicate should El-Waly win the elections.
The Muslim Brotherhood has won the majority of seats in a number of professional syndicates over the past few months, namely the Syndicate of Egyptian Medical Professionals and the Teachers Syndicate, and is running in a number of others, including the Egyptian Bar (the Lawyers' Syndicate).
“In past years we fought for the independence of the syndicate and that simply meant standing against government interference,” says Qallash, who is known to be a Nasserite. “But this time we are fighting against the hijacking of the union by any political group, no matter who they are.”
Aside from print media, other forms of media need protection against governmental interference. Samir Omar, an Al-Jazeera reporter, said the syndicate has a long way to ensure the freedom of all media. “Up until now, the syndicate only represents the print press; TV and online journalists are not included and that doesn’t help us to achieve the independence of the media,” he told Ahram Online.
Over the past few months, government officials seized and destroyed editions of Sout Al-Umma and Al-Fagr newspapers, raided the office of Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr twice in less than one month, and sent official warnings to Egyptian satellite channels ONTV and Dream TV over the content of political programmes.
Radwan Adam, another journalist who is running for Syndicate board membership, said: “The print press is only part of the media and we are looking to have full freedom of the media to avoid any limitation from the government. Also, all journalists need to be represented in the syndicate if we really want to be able to defend freedom of speech.”
Journalists have already started voting at the syndicate’s headquarters after the list of the General Assembly was completed. In front of the syndicate, a tent was set up in order for voters to register their names on the General Assembly list, a compulsory procedure that takes place before the voting process.
At some point, the supervising judges came close to postponing the elections by two weeks because the number of registrations were below the required minimum for the General Assembly list.
However, the judges decided to extend the General Assembly registration period for another hour after some journalists threatened to stage a sit-in before the syndicate in protest against the decision. The list was eventually completed and voting got underway at 4pm.
The winners should be announced later this evening.