Diaa Rashwan, head of the Journalists' Syndicate (Photo: AO)
As the press syndicate embarks on new elections Friday, challenges that will be facing the new board are believed to be playing a critical role in shaping the future of journalism in Egypt.
With Egypt going through yet another transitional phase, new laws guiding the role of media in Egypt are being debated, a National Council for Media is in the making, while journalists continue to face budget cuts and state violations.
Currently, there are 23 journalists in prison including eight syndicate members. Ten journalists have been killed while on the ground reporting events over the past four years, according to syndicate estimates.
While the number of journalists unregistered as syndicate members has not been officially estimated, it is widely believed that there are several thousand. Unregistered journalists thus receive no syndicate protection or benefits.
Moreover, journalists in recent months have also demonstrated against security violence and a lack of protection.
Meanwhile, current syndicate head Diaa Rashwan came under fire as a result of alleged accusations he made in a statement, hinting that not only should unregistered journalists not be given protection but that they should also be barred from working.
Rashwan denied the accusation and instead argued that there should be a movement to force newspapers to officially hire their staff.
While syndicate membership requires journalists to have permanent contracts with their employer, most newspapers prefer not to officially hire journalists to avoid greater costs. It is a problem made even more severe with the media's growing financial challenges.
Egypt's press syndicate is also faced with the problem of increasing unemployment. According to recent estimates announced by the syndicate board, 250 journalists have recently been dismissed from their jobs due to budget cuts in addition to 600 already unemployed, and that is not taking into account those that fall outside the syndicate membership.
Talking to Ahram Online, syndicate board member Khaled El-Balshy explains that in addition to the above issues that the syndicate has been struggling with for years, the new board will be faced with an even more challenging task of formulating the new laws regulating media.
"New laws are being formulated to accompany the new drafted constitution and journalists have a chance to finally end a decade's long state control over their syndicate," says El-Balshy.
Last year in a new cabinet formation, the ministry of information was eliminated, ending its presence since its establishment in 1952.
The minister of information overlooked government-owned TV and radio agencies and formulated general guidelines for broadcast. There have been recurring demands to eliminate the ministry so as to ease media restrictions and allow greater freedom of speech.
Alternatively, a National Council of the Media is in the making with the task of setting media guidelines. The council will reportedly include syndicate board members.
"The journalists now also have a chance to change syndicate laws [as per an article in the new constitution]…(and) maybe put an end to interest guided regulations that keep most journalists unregistered," El-Balshy says, blaming personal financial interests within the syndicate for the current regulations that bar most journalists from registration.
A monthly allowance is offered by the state to press syndicate members through the Supreme Council of the Press. Concerns are that if the syndicate membership increases such an allowance would not be affordable.
On Friday, the press syndicate's partial elections will take place electing six council member seats, in addition to the syndicate head.
Current syndicate head Rashwan is running for the position again. Another five candidates are running for the position of syndicate head including veteran unionist Yehia Qallash.
The elections were set to be called off due to a court decision that ruled for the cancellation of the partial elections, to instead hold full elections on all 12 seats. However, an appeal filed by syndicate head Rashwan and other members against the cancelation of the elections was upheld on Wednesday.
At least 50% of the syndicate members will need to attend the elections on Friday or else the voting will be postponed for 20 March.