Elections for a new chairman of the Press Syndicate will be held on 17 March. Journalists were originally scheduled to elect a chairman on 3 March but since only 309 journalists turned out, far less than the required quorum of 50 per cent plus one (meaning around 4,600 journalists), the vote was postponed. The second ballot will require a reduced ballot of only 25 per cent, meaning at least 1,150 journalists should participate.
The election will be fully run and supervised by a judicial committee, with its members belonging to the Administrative Prosecution Authority. The syndicate’s General Assembly led by the current chairman, Diaa Rashwan, will also form a committee to monitor the ballot.
Eleven journalists are seeking the chairmanship and 40 candidates are competing for the board’s six contested seats.
Candidates for the post of chairman of the syndicate include Khaled Meiri, editor-in-chief of the daily Al-Akhbar, Khaled Al-Balshi, editor-in-chief of the leftist online publication Daarb, Sayed Al-Iskandrani and Nora Rashed from Al-Gomhouriya, Ali Al-Gammal and Ayman Abdel-Aziz from Al-Ahram, and Abul-Seoud Mohamed, a freelancer.
Journalists vying to secure a seat on the board include Amr Badr (Al-Dostour), Sami Abdel-Radi (Al-Watan), Hossam Al-Sewifi (Al-Fagr), Gamal Abdel-Rehim (Al-Gomhouriya), Abdel-Raouf Khalifa (Al-Ahram), Hisham Younis (Al-Ahram), Mohamed Shabana (Al-Ahram), Qotb Al-Dawi (Al-Ghad) and Wafaa Bakri (Al-Masry Al-Youm).
Candidates have been canvassing newspaper offices for the last two weeks with their campaigns focused mainly on raising the salaries and pensions of journalists.
Meiri said his platform is focused on both improving the living and financial conditions of journalists while reinforcing press freedoms. “After long and difficult negotiations with government authorities, I was able to obtain LE580 million in funding from the Finance Ministry to raise the syndicate’s monthly financial allowance by LE600 to LE3,370 per month, and to increase journalists’ pensions from LE2,500 to LE3,000 a month, and to provide a host of free integrated medical services,” Meiri said.
Meiri said journalists and the syndicate have no interest in having strained relations with the government. “The money the Finance Ministry decided to devote to the Press Syndicate shows that it fully respects journalists and appreciates their role in spreading enlightenment, culture, information, and freedoms,” Meiri said, adding that he was aware that strong relations with the government had led some to raise fears that the ties could come at the expense of the syndicate’s independence. “Any attempt to compromise the independence of journalists will never be accepted. When the government gives money to the syndicate it does so only out of respect and appreciation,” Meiri said, adding that he knows that all state officials firmly believe in the influential role of press organisations and that these are an integral part of Egypt’s soft power.
He asserted that if elected, he would do his best to make sure that jailed journalists would be released as soon as possible. “We have just two journalists who were found guilty of criminal offences, while 10 journalists are in jail pending trial.”
The platform of Al-Balshi, the second prominent candidate for the post of chairman, is focused on regaining what he said was the syndicate and journalists’ independence from the government and entities monopolising the media. Al-Balshi said his campaign’s main objective was to free Egypt’s press industry from the grip of monopolistic powers and recapture the syndicate’s independence and freedom. “As long as we beg for financial help from the government, we will remain lacking independence and freedom,” Al-Balshi said.
He also deplored that “a beginner journalist’s salary is as low as $38 a month, then goes up to $170 only at the age of retirement, or after 30 years. This is completely unfair for a journalist who served 30 years in one publication. I think we all agree that salaries and pensions should be increased commensurate with the inflation rate so that journalists can bear the high cost of living,” Al-Balshi said.
He added that on Sunday he submitted a written request to Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli demanding that 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 showing that inflation jumped as high as 40 per cent in February.
Also running is Al-Gomhouriya journalist Al-Iskandrani who said “it will be bad for the syndicate to have another pro-government chairman for another two years, and it will also be bad to have a new chairman who is a firebrand critic of the government. The syndicate is in urgent need of a middle-of-the-road chairman who can negotiate with the government for better financial conditions and also keep press freedoms and independence intact,” Al-Iskandrani said.
He recalled that the Press Syndicate has already won a final court ruling which states that the syndicate’s monthly allowance should be increased to LE5,000 for journalists, a figure that he said should be increased by at least LE1,000 on an annual basis to keep pace with inflation. “If anyone says they were able to get LE600 from the government, I would say this is not enough and that the court gives us the right to receive more.”
Amr Badr, a candidate for a board seat, said the syndicate needs “new blood” to fight its battles for freedom, independence, and better living conditions. “Journalists have suffered from deteriorating living conditions, loss of freedoms, arbitrary dismissal, and lay-offs for the last two years,” Badr said, adding that “the way to get out of this is to have a more forceful syndicate capable of negotiating for the rights and freedoms of journalists.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly