Opposition candidate wins

Gamal Essam El-Din , Tuesday 21 Mar 2023

Khaled Al-Balshy, the newly elected chairman of the Press Syndicate, says he will fight for greater press freedoms and better living conditions for journalists, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

Opposition candidate wins
Al-Balshy upon his victory


Khaled Al-Balshy, a leftist journalist who was elected chairman of the Press Syndicate on 17 March, ran a campaign focusing on press freedoms, the need for an independent syndicate and higher wages for journalists.

“Press freedoms are important not only for journalists but for all of Egypt and its people,” Al-Balshy told Al-Ahram Weekly. “When we lose freedoms and pluralism, we all suffer.”

Al-Balshy said soaring inflation rates had left most journalists destitute.

“Wages and bonuses granted to journalists should increase by 40 per cent, in line with inflation,” he told the Weekly, adding that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s recent decision to raise the minimum wage to LE3000, up from LE2,700, should cover journalists, some of whom earn as little as LE1,200 a month.

Al-Balshy’s first priority is for the Syndicate to call for a general conference on press freedoms which will focus on simplifying licensing measures for newspapers and online publications.

“Strict financial pre-conditions and restrictions imposed by the Higher Council for Media Regulation [HCMR] have forced many newspapers and online publications to close their doors,” he said. He noted that “media monopolies now dominate the press in Egypt,” he argued that easing HCMR restrictions will inject new blood into the press market, restore diversity, help recover independence, and create jobs for journalists.

The proposed conference should also lobby for the release of jailed journalists and to change the law to prevent the detention of journalists pending trial. Large numbers of journalists have been arbitrarily dismissed from their posts in recent years even though Article 16 of the Press and Media Regulation Law 180/2018 obliges press organisations to gain the Press Syndicate’s consent before taking such measures. “This should change because it is against press freedoms and rights,” said Al-Balshy. “A lot of journalists were jailed pending trial, and while some have been released 10 journalists are still in jail pending trial on dubious charges.”

Al-Balshy was elected chairman of the Press Syndicate on 17 March after receiving 2,450 of the 5,062 votes cast, beating his closest rival, Al-Akhbar editor-in-chief and the pro-government candidate Khaled Meiri, who received 2,211 votes. Al-Balshy succeeds Diaa Rashwan who has headed the syndicate since 2019.

Al-Balshy is currently editor-in-chief of the leftist online publication Darb. In 2016, when he was the syndicate’s Freedoms Committee head, he was detained after two opposition reporters staged a sit-in at the syndicate’s Cairo headquarters.

“That I am critical of the government does not mean that I will seek confrontation with state authorities,” he said. “We need to foster cooperation from all authorities, the government, the National Authority for the Press, the HCMR and the House of Representatives to save Egypt’s press industry from extinction.”

He hopes the proposed conference will lead to the freeing of blocked online publications, saying he is not “prioritising this because I am the editor of a blocked publication, but because blocking these platforms undermines press freedoms and rights.

“There is a pressing need to free Egypt’s press from the heavy-handed intervention of state authorities and to separate ownership and editing.”

Another of Al-Balshy’s priorities is to raise journalists’ salaries, improve their living conditions and double the syndicate’s revenue. He wants to see integrated health insurance for journalists and their families, and notes that the Press Syndicate has already won a final court ruling stating that the syndicate’s monthly allowance be increased to LE 5,000 per journalists, and then by at least LE1,000 annually to keep pace with inflation.

Last week Al-Balshy submitted a written request to Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli demanding the syndicate’s financial allowance be increased by 40 per cent in line with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s new package of social support measures, including wage hikes, pension increases and tax breaks, and in line with the Central Bank of Egypt’s recent core inflation figures.

The election of a government critic and a leftist journalist as chairman of the Press Syndicate in Egypt in what was seen as a highly competitive poll was described by one Western commentator as “a breath of hope, a moment of change and a historic day for Egyptian journalists”.

Novelist and journalist Youssef Al-Qaied said Al-Balshy’s election showed that journalists, particularly young ones, want change amid difficult conditions that pose challenges to their lives and the press industry.

In the 17 March election six journalists also won seats on the syndicate board. Five are affiliated with national press organisations, while one — Mohamed Al-Garhy — works for the Nasserist Al-Karama Party’s mouthpiece. None of the six female journalists standing for board seats were successful.

The elections were supervised by a judicial committee made up of members of the Administrative Prosecution Authority. The syndicate’s general assembly, led by former chairman Diaa Rashwan, also formed a committee to monitor the ballot.

Following the 17 March election, the General Assembly renewed its rejection of normalisation of relations with Israel and reiterated calls for a freedom of information law and the release of imprisoned and detained journalists.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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