The relationship between the state and the Journalists Syndicate under the leadership of Yehia Qallash witnessed several ups and downs before reaching an unprecedented low this month with the sentencing of Qallash alongside two board members.
Syndicate head Qallash, Khaled al-Balshy and Gamal Abdel Rehim were sentenced on November 19 to two years in prison on charges of harboring two fugitives at the syndicate headquarters and spreading false news. The misdemeanor court ordered that each pay LE10,000 to suspend the implementation of the sentence.
Here’s a timeline of the lead-up to the current tensions between the syndicate and the government, from the start of this year:
February 6: The syndicate issued a statement announcing that Sisi had agreed to sponsor the celebration of its diamond jubilee at the end of March. The statement quoted a letter from the presidency indicating that the decision to sponsor the event stemmed from, “support of the role of the syndicate and journalism during this epoch in the nation’s history.” Journalists objected to Sisi’s sponsorship, citing violations committed against them under his rule.
February 7: The syndicate’s Freedoms Committee, headed by Khaled al-Balshy, issued a report documenting the state of journalism in the country in 2015, titled “Journalists under the guillotine of detention and assault.” The report noted that the violations committed against journalists that year “made journalistic work in Egypt a dangerous venture” and brought the profession to “a worse state than that prevailing under deposed President Hosni Mubarak.”
April 4: The prosecutor general issued an arrest warrant for Balshy, the syndicate’s deputy head and the head of its Freedoms Committee, on accusations of posting content on social media that called for the overthrow of the regime, protesting, destabilizing public order and defaming members of the Interior Ministry.
The syndicate’s board held an open ended meeting the following day, demanding that Balshy not be interrogated until the proper legal procedures were followed.
April 6: The Interior Ministry withdrew the case against Balshy, announcing its “appreciation of the Journalists Syndicate and the role that journalism plays in defending Egypt and freedoms at this important juncture in Egypt’s history.” The syndicate’s board responded by asserting its willingness to end the crisis in the context of mutual respect between the syndicate and Interior Ministry.
April 15: In what were the biggest demonstrations so far under Sisi’s rule, thousands of people protested against a new maritime border agreement giving Saudi Arabia sovereignty over two Egyptian islands. Protesters chanting slogans against Sisi’s government gathered on the steps of the Journalists Syndicate, a historical location for protests.
April 25: Security forces aborted attempts to hold protests against the maritime border agreement in several locations including the syndicate steps, while a group of armed men attempted to storm the building. The syndicate declared in a statement that infiltrators and thugs tried to storm the building under the watch of security forces who did not intervene. The syndicate also revealed that in the preceding days dozens of journalists had been arrested, had arrest warrants issued against them, or had their homes raided.
April 30: Journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud al-Sakka staged a sit-in at the Journalists Syndicate after their homes were raided in their absence. The syndicate explained that they would turn themselves in once it was confirmed that an arrest warrant had been issued against them and that they had summoned the syndicate’s lawyer to look into the matter.
May 1: Security forces stormed the syndicate building, “assaulted its security and abducted two journalists under the pretext that they’re wanted by the Public Prosecution,” according to the syndicate’s account. Describing the incident as “an unprecedented crime,” the syndicate board called for an urgent general assembly on May 4, and filed a complaint with the prosecutor general including details of the storming, while a number of journalists started a sit-in.
May 2: A group of state-aligned journalists begin a group under the banner, the Front to Correct the Path, calling on journalists to collect signatures demanding the overthrow of the board, which they accuse of failing to offer social or professional services to members.
May 3: The prosecutor general issued a statement that included judicial threats against Yehia Qallash, the head of the syndicate.
May 4: At a general assembly with high attendance, syndicate members demanded the removal of the interior minister, an apology from the presidency and the release of all journalists detained for crimes of conscience. The meeting ended with a list of decisions and resolutions, including a call to refrain from using the name of the interior minister and to using his inverted image in all media outlets. The statement also reiterated confidence in the syndicate’s current board. Journalists threatened to escalate by boycotting the ministry’s news altogether and filing a judicial report against it to demand accountability for those responsible for the storming of the syndicate.
May 6: The syndicate issued a statement renewing its call to all media outlets to abide by the decisions reached at the general assembly, including publishing them for protest messages that call for the removal of the interior minister, blackening the front page and publishing main headlines that condemn the assault on freedom of the press. After initially abiding by the call, some news outlets started to retreat.
May 7: The syndicate board took a reconciliatory track, postponing a second general assembly, which was scheduled days later, following a parliamentary proposal for mediation to resolve the crisis.
May 8: The Front to Correct the Path held a meeting at the office of state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, attended by five syndicate board members. The meeting ended with a statement calling for a vote of no confidence against the current syndicate board.
May 12: The syndicate board continued on the reconciliatory track, with a statement applauding the statements of the president during a field visit about “the necessity of resolving the crisis between state bodies and the media.” The board asserted that they “did not seek any clash with state institutions as the syndicate has been and will remain an essential component of state institutions.”
May 29: The Central Cairo Prosecution summoned syndicate head Qallash, and board members Balshy and Gamal Abdel Rehim for investigation on charges of harboring two people wanted by the prosecution and propagating false news about the storming of the syndicate based on a complaint filed by the Interior Ministry. The interrogation continued for 14 hours before they were released on LE10, 000 bail. The syndicate board held an emergency meeting and issued a statement contending that the prosecution depended in its interrogation on the Interior Ministry’s complaint and ignored those filed by the syndicate.
May 30: The prosecution referred the three board members to trial.