Recapturing the Narrative in Egypt

The Egyptian Journalists Syndicate building in Cairo. Photo credit: Zeinab Mohamed (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By Fatemah Farag

In a moment of euphoria on March 17, the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate elected independent journalist Khaled El-Balshy chairman of the organization. After a heated election race against the chief editor of a state-owned newspaper, El-Balshy’s victory presents an opportune moment to reconsider the realities of Egyptian journalists and journalism today.

For almost 10 years now, the international community has largely viewed Egyptian journalism within the context of low press freedom index rankings, jailed and intimidated journalists, government censorship, media capture, and blocked independent websites. These are harsh realities, but the narrative of Egyptian journalists—and journalism—is not fully contained within this framing. El-Balshy’s victory demonstrates that increasingly, the fight for better working conditions for journalists is tied to the fight for press freedom in Egypt.

“Egyptian journalists want and need their integrity, the very basics of professional respect and recognition,” explains El-Balshy, sitting in his syndicate office.

“There is so much that needs to be done,” he says. “You know, journalists had been denied access to sit here. All of the chairs had been removed. So, a member walks in and just wants a cup of tea and perhaps to invite a source to chat and he or she can’t. It was the first thing I did – return the chairs. It was like a revolutionary moment and yet it was such a simple thing to do.”

Established in 1941, the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate is made up today of over 5,000 journalists, which the administration of the syndicate estimates represents over 80 percent of Egyptian journalists across the country. Due to membership requirements, all members are appointed by mainstream organizations, even if some may have moved to work in the much smaller, alternative media sector.

Traditionally, and since a majority of the syndicate’s general assembly work within state-owned enterprises, journalists often voted for “government” candidates—candidates that, by virtue of their relationship to the state, could provide the constituency with strong benefits. Journalists close to syndicate politics over the years assert that there is a clear difference today: members are now thinking about how to make the syndicate stronger.

El-Balshy comments on this as we talk: “We process so many services that the institutions used to be able to provide their employees. Today, as the institutions weaken, journalists are turning to the syndicate to fill in these institutional gaps. It is a lot of paperwork, but essential to our constituency.”

The journalists who voted El-Balshy into this office suffer from a lack of opportunities for formal journalism training, low investments in their institutions and their own professional development, and deplorable salaries and working conditions. Who could argue that such conditions will not open people up to apathy, exhaustion, diminished ethics, and professional mediocrity?

Consider that these are the very same people we expect and call on to uphold values of professional integrity, speak truth to power, and keep up with a profession which is constantly changing at a fierce pace. They are paid as little as $38 a month, according to El-Balshy. A career journalist who is retiring after 30 years’ employment will get as little as $170 a month.

And while conversations about salaries and skills training can seem mundane, especially when compared to a narrative of freedom, they provide an essential lens for those who are concerned with promoting journalism—and freedom. And I doubt that this is a truth that is only relevant to the Egyptian context.

“There was a great awareness, especially among the younger members of the assembly, that the improvement of their working conditions can’t happen until they are allowed to do their job differently, as it should be done,” reflected Dina Samak, managing editor of Ahram Online, when considering the motivations behind the vote.

El-Balshy has always been an active member of the syndicate. “No one can parachute in and expect to win. And no one can come with their own preoccupations and expect to win. The general assembly needs to be heard, understood, and its needs respected,” he emphasizes.

Syndicate council members have also suggested that the demography of the syndicate has changed. Today it is younger, and the young cohort has different professional priorities. According to Samak, “Most of them have never exercised journalism as it should be but they know what that should be. They want to develop professionally and they recognize this can only happen within a wider margin of freedom and access to more information. They understand this is interlinked with the possibility of better working conditions.”

As journalists have suffered not only the economic degradation of their institutions, but also the effects of overall economic crises in the country, shaking off the apathy and rethinking the possibility of change has become imperative. In the past year alone, Egypt has achieved record inflation and a 70 percent devaluation of its currency. Journalists are struggling to make a living and job security can no longer be taken for granted.

Many Egyptian journalists are not convinced that the economic difficulties of their institutions reflect the global crises of journalism business models. “We never got a chance to try to impact business decisions. So, until that happens—until Egyptian journalists can become true agents of innovation and change within their institutions—we can’t say that much better economic performance is not possible,” notes El-Balshy.

El-Balshy is unfazed by the many challenges we are talking through. “I believe in the power of the individual—in human agency. Not everything is a revolutionary leap forward.” Instead, El-Balshy recommends a different path: long-term, tactical negotiation and reform. “If we can’t open channels for communication, negotiation, and influence, where does all of this head?”

The assembly members I spoke with have unanimously recognized the importance of international media partnerships: making significant investments in a diverse media ecosystem that goes beyond solely focusing on hard news and political stories. They emphasize that journalism with an activist approach also holds significance and has its appropriate moments, but that Egyptian journalism cannot be reduced to this type of journalism only. Moreover, they emphasize the need for training programs and collaborations to bridge the gap between Egyptian journalists and the global community to which they rightfully belong.

The chairs are out and perhaps it is time for everyone to take note that Egyptian journalists are asserting their right to sit in them and be counted.

Fatemah Farag is a veteran journalist and media innovator. She is the founder and director of Welad Elbalad Media Services, a company dedicated to community media development and media excellence in Egypt. Farag is currently an associate director at the American University in Cairo.

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