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Under siege: To be a journalist in Egypt
 
 

Nine years ago, 29-year-old Ahmed Khalaf started working as a culture journalist for the news website of a state-owned newspaper. His salary, however, did not cover the fare for his son’s school bus.

After three months working for the website, Khalaf had to take an additional job at another outlet for the same paper. After two years in this second position, Khalaf decided to look for more employment outside the state-owned institution that would increase his income, as he was about start a family.

Khalaf joined a TV station. However, despite the exhausting work he was required to do as part of this position, his salary was still meager. The situation improved a little when he got an opportunity to work at a Lebanese website.

“If I had left the extra job, I would not have been able to pay my son’s school fees. The payment I received from the Lebanese website for one piece was equivalent to my primary job’s total monthly salary,” Khalaf says.

All of Khalaf’s colleagues at the state-owned website have extra jobs, either with television channels or online sites, due to the low salaries paid in state-owned institutions.

Khalaf’s story is common among Egyptian journalists, who live under the threat of different risks, including low incomes, harsh working conditions and a lack of job security, as well as threats from outside the workplace, such as blocks on websites by the state, or the biggest threat of all: imprisonment.

For Khalaf, the matter is not merely financial. He believes that there was more space in which he could express his opinions when he first joined the state-owned website, but this no longer exists. His additional job is not just rewarding financially, it provides him with a level of job satisfaction and appreciation for his work that he didn’t have previously.

In 2012, Khalaf had the chance to be permanently employed by the state-owned institution, but family circumstances deprived him of the opportunity. Consequently, he also missed out on membership of the Journalists Syndicate, which requires members to be appointed permanently by their newspapers.

Holding down two jobs is time consuming. Khalaf, for instance, doesn’t have enough time to work on a novel he’s writing, or to spend with his family. He is also constantly intimidated by the prospect of losing his unstable second job, which prevents him from leaving his initial position, even if he doesn’t have a permanent contract.

The risks journalists face in Egypt are similar, whether or not they are formally employed at their institutions, be they state-owned or private outlets.

According to a March 2015 report, published by the board of the Journalists Syndicate, 350 journalists were fired from their jobs in 2015, including 200 from the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, 130 from the privately owned Youm7 newspaper, 22 from the privately owned Al-Tahrir newspaper and 15 from the privately owned weekly Agel, among others.

There is no recent data available on the total number of journalists who have been fired from their jobs since 2015, and the cases stated in the syndicate’s report were not the first, nor the last of their kind.

By the middle of last year, Youm7’s editor in chief Khaled Salah had dismissed 18 journalists in response to their public stance against the state’s decision to cede the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.

Following a statement published by a number of non-governmental organizations and Egyptian media groups on this decision, Youm7’s owner reinstated 15 of the journalists to their positions. The remaining three have since submitted a complaint against the newspaper to the Journalists Syndicate.

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Abdel Rahman Maklad, 32, is one of the three journalists who were not reinstated at Youm7. He had spent 10 of his 11 years in media as a copyeditor at Youm7. Now, he is freelancing for another Arab newspaper.

On June 14, 2017, a peaceful demonstration took place outside the Journalists Syndicate in protest over Parliament’s approval of the Egyptian-Saudi land agreement. Security forces arrested several protesters, including Maklad.

“After four days in detention,” he tells Mada Masr, “I was released on LE10,000 bail. I paid it out of my pocket, although I had proof that I was there as a reporter, delegated by my newspaper.” He goes on to say, “Things at work started to decline after I came back. Later, Salah summoned four journalists who worked for the website. I was one of them. We thought we were up for promotions based on our merits, but it turned out that the thing we had in common was that we all signed a statement initiated by the Journalists Syndicate — along with 1,600 other members — urging the president not to ratify the Tiran and Sanafir agreement.”

“I was kept waiting for hours,” says Maklad. “When I was eventually admitted into Salah’s office, he told me that the newspaper was not longer his, that it now belonged to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He said it was not up to him, but he was required to fire us for signing the statement and for the things I posted on Facebook. To avoid being fired, he said I had to accept taking unpaid leave.”

Maklad and two of his colleagues refused to sign the paperwork. Instead, they filed a complaint with the Journalists Syndicate. Their story attracted a lot of media attention, according to Maklad. The three journalists submitted a memorandum to the newspaper, in which they declared that they refused to be put on leave and that they wished to resume working in order to be able to support their families.

Maklad says they were summoned once again by Salah, who accused them of stirring up trouble, as the story was picked up by several Egyptian and Lebanese newspapers. “Where’s your syndicate now?” he asked, as he fired them. On the same day, Salah met with 30 other journalists who had signed the petition and told them that the newspaper’s administration was no longer in need of their services.

In response, Maklad and his two colleagues filed a lawsuit citing arbitrary termination. The syndicate acted by forming a task force to amicably negotiate their reinstatement, but the newspaper was unresponsive. The syndicate then formed a settlement committee. The newspaper, on the other hand, proceeded to accuse the fired journalists of being agents serving Iranian interests. It continued to refuse to reinstate Maklad and his two colleagues, although it had reinstated several other journalists. In turn, the syndicate referred Salah to a disciplinary committee.

Journalists Syndicate board member Amr Badr classifies the case of the fired Youm7 journalists as “political” in a context that is “set against anyone with an opinion.” However, he blames the problem in general on the lack of current regulations governing media practices. The applicable press law of 1996 is, Badr says, archaic and does not address financial problems journalists face, or arbitrary termination and remuneration. As there is no law pertaining to journalists’ wages, they often suffer from low and irregular pay, which was further devalued following the November 2016 currency flotation.

Earlier this year, Maklad obtained a preliminary judicial ruling in his favor, requiring the newspaper to pay him LE135,000 in compensation. This preliminary ruling has yet to be enforced, pending the issuance of a final verdict. Maklad is anxiously anticipating the final decision, which would end the instability that has plagued his professional life since his dismissal. Although he works for several websites and newspapers, none of them are able to offer him permanent employment, as — until this case has been settled — he remains affiliated with Youm7.

The support offered by the Journalists Syndicate to Maklad and his two colleagues was extended to their lawsuit against their arbitrary termination, but the syndicate’s decision to refer Salah to a disciplinary committee has yet to materialize into an actual investigation.

When it comes to more common administrative matters, Badr says the syndicate is more effective than in intervening in issues related to the rights and freedoms of its members. It is used to negotiate as litigator, but the absence of laws governing media work in Egypt makes any further involvement more complicated. In terms of protection for journalists he says, “We are dealing with a disaster: No more journalists can obtain membership. Until 10 years ago, young journalists were able to enroll, but the syndicate has decided to turn its back on them and on all reporters, including photojournalists and video journalists, who work for dozens of online websites. Although they are the backbone of on-the-ground reporting in Egypt, they are operating without protection from the syndicate.”

Laws governing the Journalists Syndicate mandate that membership only be given to journalists who hold permanent positions in media organizations, and who hold licenses in accordance with the press law. There used to be a list of affiliates, which would provide those on it with proof of their professional capacity, though without the benefits of full members like access to services, or the right to vote and run in syndicate elections.

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Financial and administrative disputes are not the only threat to news websites, however. In May 2017, 21 websites were blocked by state authorities, including a number of Egyptian online news outlets.

Now, more than 500 websites and proxy sites have been blocked, for allegedly “including content that promotes terrorism and extremism and intentionally spreads lies.” However, no official state body has claimed responsibility for this action.

The first batch of websites to be blocked included Mada Masr, Masr al-Arabia, Al-Mesryoon, Moheet, Al-Borsa and Daily News Egypt. The last two are subsidiaries of Business News, which is owned by Mostafa Saqr, whose assets were frozen in December 2016. Shortly after the censorship order, the committee tasked with seizing the assets of Muslim Brotherhood members ordered that a new group be delegated by the state-owned Akhbar al-Youm media organization to manage Business News.

Daily News Egypt’s former editor in chief Emad al-Sayed tells Mada Masr that the newspaper went through three phases: First, the website was censored and its assets seized. Then, it was faced with a financial crisis, which “[the staff] managed to navigate together.” Finally, the committee from Akhbar al-Youm took over, and has remained in charge of the outlet ever since.

Sayed tells us that he had been planning to leave Daily News Egypt and start his own media venture. But after the plight that befell the organization, he felt like he should stick around for another year. Eventually he left, in January 2018.

“It was financially devastating,” says Sayed. “The organization employs 230 people, each of whom supports a family. Blocking Daily News Egypt is inexplicable. We had actually published two articles by President Sisi before. That means they must have looked into us at the time. Personally, I believe that the censorship order is in relation to specific content, not the organization itself, especially as we are usually invited to Armed Forces events, and I have been a certified editor since 2015.”

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While journalists at Daily News Egypt managed to keep their work relatively unaffected by the block, media personnel in other blocked websites have suffered to the extent that many of them have lost their jobs.

Masr al-Arabia’s Chief Editor Adel Sabry, who is currently in detention, told Mada Masr last July that the website might shut down due to financial troubles, and that the blocking of the website in Egypt as well as the security pressures placed on its sponsors and advertisers might lead to the privately owned website’s closure.

He recounts a security apparatus worker telling him that “they will push him [Sabry] to bankruptcy, and eventually closure without direct intervention from them [security].”

In the case of Al-Masryoon newspaper, Badr explains “this was a licensed Egyptian newspaper. It’s website was blocked, and its management dismissed some people to lower their budget. The number of readers has declined, but they are still printing. Its criticality has also lessened, and the newspaper was censored more than once at the printers.”

The blocking orders were strange and surprising, Badr comments, and caused many publications to lose sponsors, despite presenting complaints to the syndicate.

“The blocking is a security decision and has no professional grounds,” he adds.

In April, police raided the office of Masr al-Arabia, under the pretext of examining software licenses, before detaining Sabry, who was accused of “illegally managing a website in violation of the telecommunications regulation law and uploading content to the internet without permission,” despite Badr’s claims that the website is affiliated with a legally-registered company.

Two days after Sabry’s arrest, the prosecution ordered his detention on accusations of “disseminating false news, attempting to incite protests and promoting an ideology that aims to alter the Constitution.”

He is still in detention, joining a host of Egyptian journalists that have been jailed for allegedly “spreading false news.”

A source at the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) told Mada Masr in April, speaking on condition of anonymity, that at least 32 journalists were detained or serving prison sentences nationwide, on charges related to their work.

In 2017, Egypt ranked 161 out of 180 countries on RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index. The organization’s report described Egypt as “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists.”

When she started her career in journalism, Maye al-Sabbagh never though she would be one of Egypt’s jailed journalists.

For a freelance assignment in March this year, Sabbagh and a fellow photojournalist were filming a report on the tramway in Alexandria’s Mansheya. They were conducting fieldwork for a piece on the tram, which included interviews with conductors, officials and passengers. They had almost finished the report when two informants escorted them to a nearby police station and they were arrested.

On their way to the station, they were told they would probably just have to surrender their footage, but the situation was different on their arrival.

“We spent seven hours waiting in the police station. After that, a National Security Agency officer came and interrogated both of us for an hour and a half. They filed a report and we spent the night in the station,” Sabbagh says.

“The following day we were referred to the prosecution, which accused of of belonging to the April 6 Youth Movement, receiving foreign funding, practicing journalism without a permit and plotting against the ruling regime,” she explained.

It took 20 days, 10 of them spent at Damanhour prison, for Sabbagh to be released on bail, pending investigations. This seems lucky in comparison to other detained journalists, like photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (Shawkan), who has been held in illegal pretrial detention since August 2013 for his coverage of the violent dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in by security forces.

Before completing his fifth year in detention, Shawkan was chosen as the recipient of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s 2018 press freedom prize.

Despite working as a reporter for several years, Sabbagh was not legally treated as a journalist by security forces, as she is not a Journalists Syndicate member. However, she speculates that this wouldn’t have changed her situation much. “Membership wouldn’t have prevented my detention, as syndicate members have also been arrested. However, at least I would have received legal support,” she explains, adding that “members of the Journalists Syndicate’s board who supported me did so as individuals.”

The syndicate is to blame for outdated media laws, Sabbagh argues. Similarly, Sayed asserts that the syndicate’s stance on defending blocked websites has been weak, adding that only some members of the board have spoken up. The politicization of the profession and the state’s need to suppress criticism has contributed to the syndicate’s weakness, Sayed explains.

Badr sees the website blocks as part of a wider crackdown on freedoms in Egypt. This is why, he argues, authorities are blocking websites or jailing journalists, even though the Constitution forbids imprisonment as a penalty in publishing cases, unless defendants are accused of inciting violence, discrimination or defamation of honor.

He adds that the current regime does not believe in the role of the media, and is convinced that all of society should mirror its discourse. “They cannot distinguish between the media and the security apparatus. They want the press to be turned into communiqués, without dialogue, criticism or free thinking. Hence, the institutions who are running Egypt’s media now are security personnel who have nothing to do with the profession.”

These are, by far, the worst times for Egyptian journalism, Badr says, adding that there is no end in sight. Sabbagh believes that the state is particularly cautious about street reporting. “We are living in a state that does not respect journalists, or their rights and personal safety. The syndicate should take some responsibility for this, she adds, so journalists are not just at the mercy of their institutions.”

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Hadeer El-Mahdawy