Between the manoeuvrings of its businessman owner and the Journalists Syndicate, privately owned newspaper Al-Tahrir faces an uncertain future.
With several newspapers facing similar financial and political pressures, and journalists themselves increasingly without protection, what happens to the paper is indicative of the challenges currently facing Egyptian media.
It has been a week since the journalists of Al-Tahrir newspaper started their sit-in at the Journalists Syndicate in protest of the closing of their newspaper and the layoff of many journalists. The crisis continues and no solutions seem to have emerged.
After the decision was made to close the newspaper, Akmal Kortam, head of the board of shareholders, declared last week that the newspaper would become a weekly publication starting on the first Thursday of October. The Journalists Syndicate has, however, rejected Kortam’s initiative, with the board calling on the Supreme Press Council to stop the weekly publication.
Member of the board, Mahmoud Kamel describes Kortam’s initiative as a way of sidestepping the demands of the newspapers’ journalists, and asserts that this is what lay behind the syndicate’s opposition.
The statement last month declaring that the newspaper would no longer be in circulation from the start of September, presented the decision as a solution to deal with constant and accumulating financial losses and to concentrate more on online journalism.
Five days following the statement, the syndicate expressed its complete refusal of Kortam’s sudden decision, which had left journalists and employees jobless and was described as illegal and unconstitutional.
A statement by the syndicate added that, “closures require lengthy legal procedures that the syndicate is usually part of, which the owner of Al-Tahrir didn’t do.” The syndicate board vowed to put together a black list that would include all newspaper owners who oppose freedom of expression, in addition to putting together a committee to revise the closure of the newspaper and to examine the legalities and the conditions of all contracts between the institution and its journalists.
However, Mahmoud Hassan, a journalist at the newspaper, thinks that the syndicate’s stance resembles that of the Arab League, in the way that its statements denounce and criticize, but its hands are tied and it is unable to take the action required.
Hassan says that the management offered the journalists two months compensation for each year of work, in return for their resignations. Many accepted the offer, the journalist states, while others accepted the offer, but refused the amount offered. A third group of journalists refused the offer alltogether.
The newspaper’s management came forward with another offer: those who wish to continue work for Al-Tahrir could enter an exam, and those who succeed would be given back their jobs, while the others would lose their jobs and their right to compensation.
Hassan explains that a small number of Al-Tahrir journalists are members of the syndicate, while the majority aren’t. With the closure of the newspaper, they lose their chance of becoming syndicate members.
The syndicate filed a case days ago against a semi-public figure for “assuming the role of a journalist,” and, despite the fact that he is not related to the Al-Tahrir dilemma, Hassan states that the case proves journalists are only seen as those who possess syndicate membership. He wonders about the safety of journalists with no membership, whom he says are the majority.
Kamal maintains the syndicate defends all journalists, whether they are syndicate members or not. For example, the syndicate intervened to free three journalists from Al-Masryoon newspaper, and they weren’t syndicate members, he recounts. But Hassan wonders about the efforts of the syndicate on behalf of many journalists who have been working for years without proper contracts, insurance or pensions. He says the syndicate has ignored journalists in private publications for a long time, which makes it unable to defend them now.
A source from inside the syndicate told Mada Masr that its stance toward Al-Tahrir has been firmer than that of the journalists, adding that the division among the journalists themselves weakened their position against the management of the newspaper.
However, the crisis continues beyond Al-Tahrir newspaper.
Hesham Qassem, one of the founders of Al-Masry al-Youm, declared earlier this week his return to the newspaper to reform and lay off many journalists, in order to curb financial loses. Similar plans may be taking place at Al-Watan and Al-Shorouk newspapers.
Hassan says the problem lies in the dynamics of private newspapers. For businessmen, profits and losses are what matters, and it is the syndicate’s job to protect the rights of journalists working in these private media institutions.
As for Kamel, the crisis of Al-Tahrir is the beginning of a trend that will later include all private publications, and therefore he emphasizes the importance of handling this crisis properly.
Both Kamel and Hassan agree that a new syndicate law that accommodates more members is important in facing what may appear to be a wave of similar crises to come.