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Egypt's press syndicate meeting set for Wednesday to discuss interior ministry dispute

Ahram Online , Tuesday 17 May 2016
Press Syndicate	(AP)
Press Syndicate (AP)

Egypt's Journalists Syndicate is convening a general assembly meeting on Wednesday to discuss its ongoing dispute with the interior ministry with the aim of resolving the crisis in a way that “retains journalists' dignity.”

The crisis erupted earlier this month when police stormed the syndicate premises in downtown Cairo and arrested two journalists, sparking public outrage and prompting journalists to hold a sit-in inside the building.

"The syndicate will be discussing its fate as well as steps to take in the coming period," Khaled El-Balshy, the head of the syndicate's freedoms committee, told Ahram Online.

More than 2,000 journalists rallied for an urgent meeting at the syndicate headquarters days after the 1 May attack, adopting a list of measures and demands in protest against the "unprecedented" raid.

At the head of these demands was the sacking of the interior minister and an official apology from the presidency.

The upcoming gathering has been postponed twice to give room for "negotiations to resolve the crisis," El-Balshy says, which has prompted some observers to speculate that the union is standing on shaky ground in its row with the ministry.

The speculations were backed by the fact that some newspapers, national and independent, did not comply with the union's general assembly directives, which included emblazoning a logo on newspapers in protest against restrictions on journalism, publishing a camera negative photo of the interior minister and running black front pages for one day.

Al-Masry Al-Youm, an independent daily, was among papers that backed the union, calling for the minister's sacking and running the above-mentioned logo, before eventually backpedalling.

A font-page editorial written earlier this week by the paper's owner, businessman Salah Deyab, in which he attacked his own paper's "political position" on the crisis, has raised doubts that some chief editors had bowed to pressure by the country's security apparatus to backtrack on their support of the union. 

Some believe, however, that the real victory for journalists is the momentum gathered by the union in defending its dignity against the "blatant barbarism" of police.

"A high turnout for the [general] assembly is a victory and a message to authorities not to repeat what they had done," El-Balshy said, adding that "this does not mean we call off our efforts."

Syndicate blamed 

The Journalists Syndicate has for many years been a rallying point for demonstrations and a venue for people to voice their grievances, even under former president Hosni Mubarak's autocratic rule.

Union officials say the attack earlier this month was a first in the syndicate's 75-year history.

Since the spat erupted, some media outlets have taken a swipe at journalists, accusing them of “politicising” the crisis and “harming” the state.

A report issued by a parliament media committee on Monday argued that the union was to blame for the crisis, saying the syndicate board committed "a grave violation" by allowing the two wanted journalists to take refuge in the union headquarters.

The report echoed an earlier statement by the public prosecutor’s office that accused the union chief, Yehia Kalash, of "a crime punishable under the law" for allowing the pair to stage a sit-in at the union building after police had stormed their homes.

A meeting held over a week ago and called for by Al-Ahram daily and attended by five syndicate board members also accused the union of acting as though it were a "political party" and demanded a withdrawal of confidence from its current board.

The interior ministry said it had followed legal measures to execute an arrest warrant for journalists Mahmoud El-Sakka and Amr Badr, who are accused of "inciting to protest" and "attempting to destabilise the country and planning a coup."  

The pair, who run a website known to be critical of the government, were ordered to be detained for 15 days, while the prosecutor-general issued a media gag in the case.

The syndicate said the move was illegal and violated its state-sponsored law, which bans police from entering its headquarters without the presence of a syndicate official.

Several Egyptian professional syndicates have expressed solidarity with the union.

Among the syndicate's demands is the release of journalists imprisoned over publishing issues.

A total of 29 journalists are currently behind bars in Egypt, with some in custody for almost three years and facing charges of “spreading false news” or aiming to “topple the state,” according to union chief Kalash.

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