Dying to join the union

Fifteen Egyptian journalists are on a hunger strike since last Sunday, demanding to be admitted as members of the journalists' syndicate. Emotions boiled over after the syndicate's membership committee turned down the applications of 96 journalists – all from independent or opposition newspapers.
Five of the hungerstrikers have already been taken to hospital after their health condition deteriorated. © Mohamed Ali Eddin

CAIRO, October 23, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Fourteen journalists from two independent newspapers, Al-Badil and Al-Dostour, along with a female journalist from Al-Gad newspaper, have been on a hunger strike at the Egyptian journalists' syndicate since last Sunday. The journalists are threatening to keep up the hunger strike until the syndicate allows them to become members.

On Monday, around a hundred journalists protested their seclusion from membership outside the syndicate headquarters, shouting out criticism of the criteria used by the membership committee, which has refused 96 journalists out of a total of 296 journalists who applied to join. 

The protesters suspect interference from Egypt's security services was behind the exclusion of a number of journalists from the two main opposition newspapers. When the membership committee convened last August, it had asked the applicants probing questions about their political affiliations. 

'Even if it costs me my life'

The crisis between the journalists and the syndicate looks set to escalate further.

As five of the hunger strikers have already been taken to Munira hospital after their situation deteriorated, the syndicate is still refusing to respond to the journalists' demands.

At Munira hospital, MENASSAT spoke with Muhammad Abdel Ra'ouf, a journalist with Al-Badil who has been on a hunger strike since last Sunday.

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"We will not accept this injustice by the membership committee," said Ra'ouf.

"What are their criteria for accepting new members? I have a masters in literary criticism with very good grades, and my journalistic portfolio is massive and complete. Since I joined Al-Badil, I did at least 150 reports. During the month the committee was convened, I had three scoops. What is the justification for denying me membership then? I answered their questions. Why was I refused?"

Ra'ouf vowed to continue the hunger strike until death.

"I won't end my strike even if it costs me my life. I will continue until my rights, and my colleagues' rights have been restored, until fixed criteria for membership are set. This is a battle for all journalists. This is not just about Al-Badil and Al-Dostour: we are seeking to set criteria for the coming generations of journalists." 

Abdoh Zaki, another hunger striker in Munira hospital told MENASSAT, "If journalists are required to accept such concessions, what about the ordinary citizens? What happened in the membership committee is a joke." 

He added, "We feel grave injustice. After 12 years of working in journalism, and four years of journalism school, they tell me I'm not good enough to be a journalist! Also, the questions asked by the membership committee had nothing to do with journalistic experience."

Khaled Al-Balshi, editor in chief of Al-Badil, a leftist daily newspaper, told MENASSAT, "The head of the syndicate previously promised me that professional criteria would be the standard. He said that any newspaper fulfilling membership conditions would have its journalists admitted. But then he switched to other interests."

The second day.
© Mohamed Ali Eddin

Commenting on the hunger strike, Al-Balshi said, "The head of the syndicate and his board and his honorable committee left us no choice. We wanted this to be a union issue, but they thought otherwise and turned it into a press issue. They've got it coming to them." 

"The membership committee's questions went from being distorted general information to absurdity," Al-Balshi. "They asked the applicants about Egypt's fire department emergency code, and who's older: Mustafa Amin or Ali Amin? Are these questions a professional standard for evaluating a journalist?" 


Gamal Fahme, a board member of the syndicate, agreed with Al-Balshi.

"This crisis is a result of a suspicious behavior on behalf of the membership committee," he told MENASSAT.

"For example, they came up with these illegal tests. There is no such thing in the syndicate's laws; the syndicate has no right to test any journalist. They only have to verify if the journalist is practicing professionally, and for this, they just have to look at his portfolio. This is why I consider what happened an excuse to refuse some journalists membership.

"If we look at the questions asked by the committee, we notice that they vary from extremely superficial to extremely hard, and in all cases irrelevant to the professionalism of the applying colleagues. On the other hand, the committee accepted relatives of committee members. It also a relative of the CEO of a major media establishment because two-thirds of the committee members work at this establishment, although this person works in advertisement and is not qualified to be a journalist. This shows that nepotism is widespread in the syndicate now, for the first time in its history." 

The committee's criteria and procedure aside, this year also a new and dangerous practice appear, Fahme said.

"They are what we might call 'membership brokers;' people who employ lowly practices regarding the membership results. This is a major injustice, not to mention against the law."

Fahme said he was supportive of the hunger strikers.

"I am extremely sympathetic with my colleagues, although I was not for starting the hunger strike immediately because it is a very powerful weapon. But of course it's their right to strike, and what they did is completely justifiable." 

Not surprisingly, the head of the syndicate, Makram Muhammad Ahmad, had a completely different take on things.

'This is chaos!'

When Al-Badil asked him to comment on the deteriorating health of some of the journalists in a report published last Tuesday, Ahmad said, "So what does this have to do with me? Is it by force? (...) These people had low grades (...) They want to join by force now? (...) Journalists who start their career with such protest… what lame journalists they are." 

Ahmad didn't offer the protesting journalists much hope that the committee will come back on its decision.

Unsympathetic: head of the syndicate,
Makram Muhammad Ahmad. R.R.

"We cannot interfere in the membership committee's decisions," he said.  "Denied journalists should pay attention to their work and prepare for the committee's tests. I have never seen journalists behaving like this. This is chaos! Do they think I will let them in after this strike? Even if they strike for a 100 years, nothing will happen but according to the law". 

Gamal Fahme was not alone in supporting the journalists on hunger strike. Civil society organizations also criticized the syndicate's actions.

A statement issued by the Gamal Mubarak Center said, "The syndicate is refusing to be a united home for journalists and refused 80 applicants as trainees, up to 30 percent of all applicants. The decision included 56 journalists from private newspapers, and 28 from party papers. The list of rejected journalists did not include anyone from the government applicants." 

The center considers the results proof of security interference to flush out journalists. 

The Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the Egyptian Association for Civil Participation Development and the Al-Hilali Freedom Institution all condemned the syndicate's actions.

In a statement, the ANHRI said, "Journalists belonging to independent newspapers like Al-Badil and Al-Dostour, or party newspapers like Al-Ghadd, are now paying the price for criticizing the government (...) while the new journalists [working for] government newspapers were all accepted."

(Salma Al-Wardani is a Cairo-based journalist working for Al-Badil.)