Egyptian Journalists Take a Stand

Makram Mohamed Ahmad, head of the Egyptian Journalists' Syndicate and a longtime Mubarak apologist, has found himself in a tough spot during the past two weeks. Ahmad, as countless Egyptian journalists have told me for years, has done next to nothing for the very journalists whose rights he is obliged to protect. Ahmad watched idly as hundreds of Egyptian journalists were targeted through politicized trials. He did nothing in 2009 and 2010 when plainclothes police and intelligence personnel posed as journalists in demonstrations and collected information to use in suppressing dissent and rounding up demonstrators and activists.

Over the past two weeks, as Egypt's uprising rocked the country's political establishment in ways unseen since the 1919 Revolution, and as droves of Egyptian and foreign journalists were brutalized by thugs, plainclothes police, and uniformed authorities, Ahmad only made the most muted protestations. In the opening days of the uprising, police dragged 26 Egyptian journalists from the steps of the building housing the journalists' syndicate. It was, after all, the institution that at least in principle, should have shielded them from the orchestrated persecution and entrenched censorship tactics that reached their peak in the past two weeks.

On the same day the 26 journalists were forcibly removed from the syndicate, Ahmad brazenly went on multiple television broadcasts, intimating that he had expanded personal capital with the now-deposed interior minister to free his constituency. Egyptian journalists have repeatedly told me how Ahmad had accumulated personal political capital with the government's henchmen.

Ahmad is also the secretary-general of the Federation of Arab Journalists (FAJ), an entity long co-opted by regional governments. In that capacity he gave FAJ's annual award in April to the now-deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for "defending press freedom in the Arab world." Ahmad has unambiguously illustrated which side of the battle for information he is on.

Today, hundreds of Egyptian journalists are saying 'enough is enough.' They've driven their long-resented chief out of the syndicate, and posted it on YouTube, lest there be any doubt about their resolve. There are certainly many senior and junior members of the syndicate who have consistently defended the rights of their colleagues, often at great personal and professional cost, but Ahmad is not one of them. Taking their syndicate back--even if only symbolically for the time being--is not only a courageous first step but signifies a fundamental shift in the way Egyptian journalists are making sure that any advances they have wrestled out of the system are not squandered. Their actions are not only an assertion of their professional aspirations; they are also a demand for the fundamental right of all Egyptians to access impartial information.

Those at the syndicate are not alone. More than 500 media professionals have now condemned the crudely propagandist coverage of the uprising in state-controlled media. They denounced "what has been done by print, visual and audio media of falsifying truth, lying and tarnishing the image of the people who seek freedom and progress for this country." The statement added that "there will be a black list of those who abandoned their professional ethics for the sake of regime." There are also reports that large numbers of journalists at a number of long co-opted publications, chief among them Al-Ahram, Egypt's second oldest daily (in print since 1875), and Rose al-Youssef, once Egypt's most prestigious magazine, have now publicly demanded that that their editors and others in leadership positions step down immediately. Some days ago, Osama al-Skaikh, head of the Egyptian Television and Radio Union resigned, citing disagreement with governmental directives on information and steering of editorial lines.

This wave of defiance against entrenched censorship and interference by the state is likely to reach a crescendo tomorrow, when journalists are calling for a massive demonstration by media practitioners.

This much is clear and irreversible: thousands of Egyptian journalists have begun laying the groundwork for future press freedom reforms. It will be interesting to see if and how state-controlled media reports on the collective action planned by journalists for tomorrow.