Low Pay, Limited Freedom: Dark Days For Egypt's Journalists
Low wages, government censorship and even arbitrary detentions. Practicing journalism has become an increasingly risky business in Egypt.
CAIRO — Nine years ago, Ahmed Khalaf, 29, started working as a culture journalist for the website of a state-owned newspaper. But his salary was so low it hardly covered transportation costs. After three months, he took an additional job at another outlet for the same paper, but still didn't earn enough to support the family he wanted to start, so after two years, he decided to seek yet another job.
Khalaf then joined a TV station. It was exhausting work and again, poorly paid, although the situation did improve somewhat when he got an opportunity to work for a Lebanese website. Without the extra job he wouldn't have been able to pay his son's school expenses, he explains. "The payment I received from the Lebanese website for one piece was equivalent to my primary job's total monthly salary."
Khalaf's story is typical among Egyptian journalists, for whom low salaries are just one of the many problems they face. Harsh working conditions and a lack of job security are also commonplace, as are threats from outside the workplace, such as blocks on websites by the state. Worse still are the cases of imprisonment, a fate that has befallen an increasing number of journalists in recent years.
Khalaf agrees that the problem isn't just financial. He says that when he first began working for state-owned media, he had a lot of space and freedom to express his opinions. That's all gone now. Without that freedom the work is less gratifying, he says — certainly compared to his side job with the Lebanese website.
Also, holding down two jobs is time-consuming. Khalaf, for instance, doesn't have enough time to work on a novel he's writing, or be with his family as much as he'd like. He's stressed too about the prospect of losing his unstable second job. That, in turn, prevents him from leaving his main job, even though he isn't happy with it, and doesn't have a permanent contract there either.
But even journalists with fixed contracts, or those employed in the private sector, face challenges in Egypt. A 2015 report by the Journalists Syndicate noted that some 350 journalists had been sacked the previous year, about 150 of them from private outlets like the newspaper Youm7. There's no available data on number of journalists fired since then, though people are certainly losing their jobs still.
Last year, the editor in chief ofYoum7, Khaled Salah, dismissed 18 journalists in response to their public stance against the state's decision to cede the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. An outcry by non-governmental organizations and Egyptian media groups prompted the paper's owner to reinstate 15 of the journalists. The other three have since submitted a complaint against the newspaper to the Journalists Syndicate.
"Where's your syndicate now?"
One of those is Abdel Rahman Maklad, 32, who spent 10 of his 11 years in media as a copyeditor at Youm7. He now freelances for another Arab newspaper. Maklad was one of several people arrested on June 14, 2017, outside the Journalists Syndicate, during a peaceful demonstration against Parliament's approval of the Egyptian-Saudi land agreement.
It now belonged to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
"After four days in detention I was released on a bail of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (EGP) ($560)" he tells Mada Masr. "I paid it out of pocket, although I had proof that I was there as a reporter, sent by my newspaper. Things at work started to decline after I came back. Later, Salah summoned four journalists who worked for the website. I was one of them. We thought we were up for promotions based on our merits, but it turned out that the thing we had in common was that we all signed a statement initiated by the Journalists Syndicate — along with 1,600 other members — urging the president not to ratify the Tiran and Sanafir agreement."
Maklad says he was kept waiting for hours. "When I was eventually admitted into Salah's office, he told me that the newspaper was no longer his, that it now belonged to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi," the journalist recalls. "He said it was not up to him, but he was required to fire us for signing the statement and for the things I posted on Facebook. To avoid being fired, he said I had to accept taking unpaid leave."
Maklad and two of his colleagues refused to sign the paperwork. Instead, they filed a complaint with the Journalists Syndicate. Their story attracted a lot of media attention. The three journalists submitted a memorandum to the newspaper, in which they declared that they refused to be put on leave and that they wished to resume working to support their families.
Maklad says that Salah summoned them once again and accused them of stirring up trouble. "Where's your syndicate now?" he asked as he fired them. On the same day, Salah met with a number of other journalists who had signed the petition and told them that the newspaper's administration was no longer in need of their services.
In response, Maklad and his two colleagues filed a lawsuit citing arbitrary termination. The Syndicate acted by forming a task force to amicably negotiate their reinstatement, but the newspaper was unresponsive. The Syndicate then formed a settlement committee. The newspaper, on the other hand, proceeded to accuse the fired journalists of being agents serving Iranian interests. It continued to refuse to reinstate Maklad and his two colleagues, although it had reinstated several other journalists. In turn, the Syndicate referred Salah to a disciplinary committee.
Journalists Syndicate board member Amr Badr classifies the case of the fired Youm7 journalists as "political" in a context that is "set against anyone with an opinion." But the more general problem, he says, is a lack of updated regulations governing media practices. Badr says the applicable press law of 1996 is archaic and does not address financial problems journalists face, or arbitrary termination and remuneration. As there is no law pertaining to journalists' wages, they often suffer from low and irregular pay, which was further devalued following the November 2016 currency flotation.
The Journalists Syndicate's power is such matters is limited, Badr admits. It's decision to refer Salah to a disciplinary committee, for example, has yet to result in an actual investigation. On top of that, many young journalists cannot qualify for Syndicate membership, the board member explains. Laws governing the Journalists Syndicate mandate that membership only be given to journalists who hold permanent positions in media organizations, and who hold licenses in accordance with the press law.
"We're dealing with a disaster," Badr says. "Until 10 years ago, young journalists were able to enroll, but the Syndicate has decided to turn its back on them and on all reporters, including photojournalists and video journalists who work for dozens of online websites. Although they are the backbone of on-the-ground reporting in Egypt, they are operating without protection from the Syndicate."
Pulling the plug
Another big problem for websites is direct intervention by the state. In May 2017, state authorities blocked 21 websites, including a number of Egyptian online news outlets. To date, more than 500 websites and proxy sites have been blocked for allegedly "including content that promotes terrorism and extremism and intentionally spreads lies." And yet, no official state body claims responsibility for these actions.
The first batch of websites to be blocked included Mada Masr, Masr al-Arabia, Al-Mesryoon, Moheet, Al-Borsa and Daily News Egypt. The last two are subsidiaries of Business News, which is owned by Mostafa Saqr, whose assets were frozen in December 2016. Shortly after the censorship order, the committee tasked with seizing the assets of Muslim Brotherhood members ordered that a new group be delegated by the state-owned Akhbar al-Youm media organization to manage Business News.
Daily News Egypt's former editor in chief Emad al-Sayed tells Mada Masr that the newspaper went through three phases: First, the website was censored and its assets seized. Then, it was faced with a financial crisis that "the staff managed to navigate together." Finally, the committee from Akhbar al-Youm took over, and has remained in charge of the outlet ever since.
Sayed tells us that he had been planning to leave Daily News Egypt and start his own media venture. But after the plight that befell the organization, he felt like he should stick around for another year. Eventually he left, in January 2018.
"It was financially devastating," says Sayed. "The organization employs 230 people, each of whom supports a family. Blocking Daily News Egypt is inexplicable. We had actually published two articles by President Sisi before. That means they must have looked into us at the time. Personally, I believe that the censorship order is in relation to specific content, not the organization itself, especially as we are usually invited to Armed Forces events, and I have been a certified editor since 2015."
While journalists at Daily News Egypt managed to keep their work relatively unaffected by the block, media personnel in other blocked websites have suffered to the extent that many of them have lost their jobs. Masr al-Arabia"s chief editor, Adel Sabry, who is currently in detention, told Mada Masrlast July that the website might shut down due to financial troubles, and that the blocking of the website in Egypt as well as the security pressures placed on its sponsors and advertisers might lead to the privately owned website's closure.
He recounts a security apparatus worker telling him that "they will push him Sabry to bankruptcy, and eventually closure without direct intervention from them security."
In the case of the newspaper Al-Masryoon, Badr explains: "This was a licensed Egyptian newspaper. It's website was blocked, and its management dismissed some people to lower their budget. The number of readers has declined, but they are still printing. Its criticality has also lessened, and the newspaper was censored more than once at the printers."
The blocking orders were strange and surprising, and caused many publications to lose sponsors, despite presenting complaints to the syndicate, Badr adds. "It's a security decision and has no professional justification."
A source at the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) told Mada Masr in April, speaking on condition of anonymity, that at least 32 journalists were detained or serving prison sentences nationwide on charges related to their work. In 2017, Egypt ranked 161 out of 180 countries on RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index. The organization's report described Egypt as "one of the world's biggest prisons for journalists."
Crackdown on criticism
When she started her career in journalism, Maye al-Sabbagh never thought she would be one of those jailed journalists. For a freelance assignment in March this year, Sabbagh and a fellow photojournalist were filming a report on the tramway in Alexandria's Mansheya, where they interviewed conductors, officials and passengers. They had almost finished the report when two informants escorted them to a nearby police station and they were arrested.
On their way to the station, they were told they would probably just have to surrender their footage. But on arrival, the situation proved to much more troubling.
"We spent seven hours waiting in the police station," Sabbagh says. "After that, a National Security Agency officer came and interrogated both of us for an hour and a half. They filed a report and we spent the night in the station. The following day we were referred to the prosecution, which accused of of belonging to the April 6 Youth Movement, receiving foreign funding, practicing journalism without a permit and plotting against the ruling regime," she adds.
It took 20 days, 10 of them spent at Damanhour prison, for Sabbagh to be released on bail, pending investigations. This seems lucky in comparison to other detained journalists such as photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (Shawkan), who has been held in illegal pretrial detention since August 2013 for his coverage of the violent dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in by security forces.
Before completing his fifth year in detention, Shawkan was chosen as the recipient of UNESCO's 2018 press freedom prize.
Despite working as a reporter for several years, Sabbagh was not legally treated as a journalist by security forces, as she is not a member of the Journalists Syndicate. But even if she were a member, she doesn't think it would have mattered much. "Membership wouldn't have prevented my detention, as syndicate members have also been arrested. Still, at least I would have received legal support," she says.
Badr sees the website blockages as part of a wider crackdown on freedoms in Egypt. He says the current regime does not believe in the role of the media, and is convinced that all of society should mirror its discourse. "They cannot distinguish between the media and the security apparatus," Badr argues. "They want the press to be turned into communiqués, without dialogue, criticism or free thinking. Hence, the institutions that are running Egypt's media now are security personnel who have nothing to do with the profession."
These are the worst of times for Egyptian journalism, Badr says, adding that there is no end in sight. Sabbagh believes that the state is particularly cautious about street reporting. "We are living under a state that does not respect journalists, or their rights and personal safety," she says. "The Syndicate should take some responsibility for this so that journalists aren't just at the mercy of their institutions."