Proposed amendments to the law governing Egypt’s Journalists Syndicate have come under fire for bypassing normal procedural channels and being rushed through without input from syndicate members. Critics claim the amendments are being imposed by state authorities in an effort to control the drafting process and weaken the syndicate.
The drafts — the contents or details of which have yet to be published — come in the wake of Parliament’s approval of three controversial press regulatory laws over the summer that grant government authorities far-reaching powers to further clamp down on the media and restrict press freedoms.
Currently, two separate draft amendments to the Journalists Syndicate law (Law 76/1970) are being prepared and both are reportedly close to being finalized, but neither one has included the involvement of the syndicate’s rank and file in the drafting process.
The first is being prepared by Hatem Zakareya, the secretary general of the syndicate and a member of the Supreme Media Regulatory Council. Zakareya tells Mada Masr he drafted the amendment with the help of a legal adviser for the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper, adding that he is putting the final touches on it before presenting it to representatives of the general assembly.
Yehia Qallash, the former president of the syndicate, described Zakareya’s draft in a Facebook post as an “orphan law.” According to Qallash, Zakareya prepared the draft without input from the Journalists Syndicate board or general assembly, in defiance of all of the syndicate’s customary protocols. He added that the goal of Zakareya’s proposal is to “liquidate the syndicate and end its role as an umbrella of protection for journalists and the final barrier amid the harsh and unprecedented circumstances faced by journalists. It is part of a wider framework of measures to effectively eradicate the profession. Now the Journalists Syndicate’s turn has come.”
Zakareya dismisses Qallash’s claims, saying he was quick to criticize the proposed amendments without understanding their contents. The secretary general also stresses that he did not violate any of the syndicate’s conventional protocols. Once he finalizes and presents the draft to the syndicate’s board, Zakareya tells Mada Masr that he will call for hearings with all journalists working within national, private and partisan institutions. After the parties agree on the proposals, the amendments will be redrafted before submission to Parliament.
Meanwhile, Amr Badr, a member of the syndicate’s board, blasted the involvement of individuals affiliated with the state, calling it a “disgrace” that a lawyer from Al-Ahram is involved in rewriting the syndicate law.
Zakareya emphasizes that there is an urgent need to amend the syndicate law before the end of the year. Due to the difficulty of gathering quorum in the syndicate’s general assembly, he said there is no need for all the assembly’s members to be present in order to hold a vote on the proposed amendments.
The other draft amendment is being prepared by Abdel Mohsen Salama, head of the Journalists Syndicate and a vocal supporter of the controversial media legislation that was ratified by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in September.
On August 22, Salama announced that he had finished preparing his proposed amendments and would present them to the syndicate board, prior to submitting them to Parliament before the end of the year. He explained that the main features of the amendments are to abolish the board election midterms and to make term lengths equal for the president and other board members. It also modifies regulations to allow journalists working in digital media to join the syndicate.
Badr says he and a number of other board members knew nothing about Salama’s draft amendment, other than his mention of it in a meeting three months ago, where he pledged to later present it to the board.
According to Badr, the common factor between the two amendments proposed by Salama and Zakareya is that they are being imposed on the syndicate by a state institution, although he refrains from identifying which.
He adds that there is also a conflict of interest in the timing. Both drafts are being raised before the board’s midterm elections next March, when six leadership positions are up for election, including Salama’s. “The president and secretary general are making laws to suit themselves,” Badr claims. “Otherwise, why the urgency to prepare these amendments in secret, away from the 12 members of the syndicate’s board and the general assembly?”
He says that he and four other board members — the five syndicate members who were the most outspoken in their criticism of the recently passed media legislation — will not review either Salama’s or Zakareya’s drafts because they were not included in the drafting process.
According to Badr, there has been a dispute between the head of the syndicate and the secretary general recently, with each having his own vision on how to amend the syndicate law. Yet since both Salama and Zakareya bypassed the traditional process, there was no room for syndicate members to debate their proposals. This process typically involves the syndicate board forming a committee from its members, which then formulates the general outline for the amendments and their goals. Then, the committee, along with law professors and senior journalists draft the amendments. Afterward, hearings are held to present the proposals and the general assembly is called to vote on draft legislation before it is sent it to the Parliament.