By Iqbal Tamimi
The Syndicate of Journalists in Egypt, or EJS, a trade union with 7,000 or so members, recently announced on its website, with great pride, that it had hosted a training workshop for its members, delivered by Chris Elliott, Managing Editor of the Guardian and Observer newspapers in the UK in 2009, and currently the Guardian’s Reader’s Editor. The training event’s expenses were covered by UNESCO. The workshop was held on 7 and 8 March 2011, and only journalists who had been working in the Egyptian press for a minimum of 5 years were allowed to benefit from Chris’s expertise.
Any training for Egyptian journalists is highly appreciated, but the journalists of Egypt do not suffer from a skills deficiency as much as they suffer the consequences of 186 laws inhibiting their freedom to report.
It is a brilliant idea to offer Egyptian journalists extra training, especially after the ousting of the Mubarak regime, which oppressed journalists, controlled them and used them as one of its tools for more than 30 years. It is a great contribution by the UN to sponsor such training. But is Elliott the right person to help an Egyptian journalists’ trade union?
It has been said that charity should start at home. As far as I remember, Chris Elliott published a letter a couple of years ago, saying that as of 1st September 2009, the Guardian and Observer newspapers would refuse to pay freelance photographers for re-use of commissioned images in all material published by the GNM group.
This story angered a considerable number of NUJ members. It has been claimed that no financial compensation was offered for such extended rights, and that photographers who refused to accede to this rights grab were no longer offered work by the group. This unfair decision was a shock to the photojournalists who were concerned about protecting their copyright – the basis of making a living through editorial photography.
I hope that such managerial skills will not be passed on to Egyptian journalistic institutions, and that Salah Abdel-Maksoud, the current acting chairman of the Press Syndicate Council, knows about his guest speaker’s loyalty to the media business owners over his interest in what is best for trade unionists’ rights, especially when the majority of Egyptian journalists do already suffer having to manage on low wages. It is a well-known fact that the managers of media outlets in Egypt are in control of bonuses, and the majority of editors-in-chief in the Egyptian press have got used to offering assignments to journalists in their own close circles.
Elliott has published an article about his training trip to Egypt, but he does not say what advice he offered the Egyptian journalists. As a matter of fact, in the very first paragraph, he demonstrates that he does not know the difference between addressing a ‘reader’ and a fellow ‘journalist’ . He describes a person as ‘an Egyptian reader’, then he describes the same person as ‘one of a group of journalists’. Surely there is a great difference between debating with a reader who might know very little about the journalism profession, and debating with an equal, a fellow journalist with matching experience.
It looks possible that, for Elliott, the training invitation may have been more about being ‘a paid consultant to UNESCO, which funded the trip and training, during a week’s leave’ from his day job at the Guardian, than about 7,000 members of a trade union who are striving for advice on institutional restructure and protecting the rights of journalists.
I believe that syndicates should investigate the past experience of those who are going to be part of rebuilding their journalistic systems and contributing to upgrading the skills of fellow journalists, especially in the Middle East, which is going through a media and political reshuffling revolution after years of practising under corrupt, rusty systems. The Arab journalistic syndicates should be cooperating with those who understand the struggles of fellow members of trade unions, and not with those who may be responsible for unfair managerial decisions.
The Syndicate of Journalists in Egypt did not report the detail of what Mr Elliott’s training consisted of. I contacted Mr Salah Abdel-Maksoud, the current acting chairman of the Press Syndicate Council, by email on Monday, 21 March, 2011 and contacted the Syndicate again through another email available on their website, requesting some information about the training course, but I received no reply. I phoned the Syndicate offices on 24 March using the telephone numbers available on their website, but I did not succeed in talking to anyone.