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Poison in the honey
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 30 - 11 - 2016

The Tunisian Press Syndicate has issued a statement, purportedly in solidarity with Egyptian Press Syndicate head Yehia Qallash and board members Khaled Al-Balshi and Gamal Abdel-Rehim who, following a ruling of Qasr Al-Nil Misdemeanours Court, could face two years in jail should their appeal against the sentence fail.
According to the Tunisian Press Syndicate's statement the two year sentence on “fabricated charges” represents “unprecedented bullying” and the judiciary being “used to settle political accounts”.
“This ruling comes within the context of a strategic direction by Al-Sisi's government to subject the Press Syndicate to military rule and erode journalists of the will to defend themselves,” the statement continued.
Following last week's ruling the three syndicate officials were bailed pending appeal. The case is linked to protests against the Maritime Border Agreement signed between Egypt and Saudi Arabia last April, which ceded control over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Riyadh. It centres around Amr Badr and Mahmoud Al-Sakka, two opponents of the agreement who work for the small news Website Yanayer (January). To protest an arrest warrant issued against charges of organising unlicensed demonstrations against the island deal, the two announced they would hold a sit-in at the headquarters of the Press Syndicate. They then sought refuge in the journalists' union headquarters, from where they were arrested.
On 29 May Qallash, Al-Balshi and Abdel-Rehim were summoned for questioning and eventually charged with harbouring two fugitives. Though Badr and Al-Sakka insist their resort to the syndicate's headquarters is part of a long-standing tradition by which Egyptian journalists to seek the syndicate's help when facing legal problems related to their work, Qallash, Al-Balshi and Abdel-Rehim were sentenced to two years in prison for providing them with refuge.
“While we appreciate all shows of solidarity from Arab and international syndicates and organisations,the Tunisian Press Syndicate's statement exceeded the limits of propriety,” Qallash told Al-Ahram Weekly. “It was a politicised attack on the president, the regime and the army.”
The Tunisian Syndicate has also said it intends to file an urgent request to the Arab Journalists Union, currently based in Egypt, to move its headquarters to another Arab state and has threatened to organise demonstrations in front of the Egyptian embassy in Tunis.
“The request to transfer the Arab Journalists Union headquarters from Egypt is also a politicised one that oversteps the bounds of solidarity,” Qallash told the Weekly.
Assistant Head of the Arab Journalists Union Hatem Zakariya condemned the Tunisian statement which “strikes at the heart of the unity of the Arab journalism” and was a “deliberate and unprovoked attack on Egyptian national figures and symbols of the state, army and judiciary”.
Khaled Meri, under secretary of the Press Syndicate and secretary general of the Arab Journalists Union, said that the Tunisian statement was “a blatant deviation from the Syndicate's work and constituted unacceptable interference in the political affairs of the Egyptian state”.
“The Egyptian Press Syndicate has made clear its rejection of any attempt to politicise the case. The Tunisian syndicate's statement, however, overstepped professional solidarity by targeting the army and the presidency,” Meri said in a statement. It was obvious that the statement was targeting Egypt and wasn't just a solidarity with the syndicate as the Tunisian Press Syndicate didn't do the same with the chairman of the Press Syndicate in Morocco whose trial is still ongoing, Meri stated.
Local and international human rights organisations have condemned the court ruling. Seventeen local rights organisations issued a joint statement last week saying “the ruling was an enormous blow to freedom of opinion and expression in Egypt”.
Qallash told the Weekly the syndicate would follow all available legal processes to appeal the sentence. Appeal hearings are scheduled to begin on 25 December.
According to the Press Syndicate, 28 Egyptian journalists are currently behind bars. It is a figure the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) disputes. In a report issued on Sunday ANHRI listed 63 journalists and media personnel that it says are held in Egypt's prisons.
Last week a general meeting was held in the Press Syndicate headquarters in Downtown Cairo to discuss the ruling that was issued days earlier. “If some think we are in trouble, your presence here today is our gift, which enables us to hold together and pursue our cause,” Qallash said during the opening speech. “The syndicate represents freedoms and will never be turned into a police station where I am required to turn in my colleagues. If I'm guilty of this, then all previous syndicate leaders are, and I consider it an honour.”

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