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The Reporters Covering Morsi's Trial Are Calling for His Death. Huh?

AFP/Getty Images

“Therefore we hope that ... the maximum penalty will be applied, death by hanging, in the hope that this judgment will be carried out on the walls of the Itahadeya presidential palace in the same place that al-Husseini Abu Deif was martyred.”

The above is an excerpt from a statement issued by the Journalists’ Syndicate on the day last week of ousted president Mohamed Morsi’s trial. It calls for the former ruler to be sentenced to death on charges of inciting the murder of protesters outside of the presidential palace during protests that followed the constitutional declaration in late 2012. A photojournalist with el-Fagr newspaper, Husseini Abu Deif, died from injuries he sustained during the demonstrations.

A holdover from Egypt’s socialist past, the professional syndicates here are very powerful. Elections within them are often seen as bellwethers for a particular group’s power within the country. For example, in advance of the parliamentary elections in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood won many important syndicate elections, before going on to sweep the seats in parliament. 8,500 of Egypt's journalists belong to the Journalists’ Syndicate.

On the morning the statement was issued, Morsi entered the Cairo court to cries of “Death penalty! Death penalty!” Members of the Egyptian press corps covering the trial stood on the benches and desks in the courtroom and chanted in unison.

In most contexts, such a marked lack of objectivity from the press corps would be surprising to say the least. But not in Egypt. Mahmoud Hamed, crime reporter with state-run newspaper al-Ahram (in English, “The Pyramids”), told me at the time, “they are first and last citizens.”

Shalaby Tharwat, Deputy Editor covering judicial issues with al Ahaly newspaper, and Syndicate member for many years, says he has attended trials related to the last three Egyptian presidents: that of the killers of Anwar Sadat in 1982, Hosni Mubarak’s, and now Morsi’s. During the latter he took off his shoe, and threatened to throw it at one of the lawyers for the Muslim Brotherhood, saying the attorney had impugned his professionalism. Young men who had been stationed in the courtroom for the purpose restrained him, but he was allowed to remain in the courtroom. Tharwat agreed with Hamed that members of the press corps who called for the death penalty were simply reacting normally to the loss of their colleague. Graffiti of Abu Deif was redrawn on the wall of the Journalist' Syndicate in the last few days.

Ali Sotohy, a producer with the popular Yosri Fouda talk show on one of Egypt’s independent channels, sees it a bit differently. He said that he would like to see the rule of law applied. For him, the trial is important for another reason: “One of the good things that happened after the revolution [on January 25, 2011] is that people are all the same” in the eyes of the law. Perhaps. There is at least one rather glaring exception.

When asked about the Journalists’ Syndicate and its statement, Sotohy said that they don’t represent his views. Despite having worked as a journalist for seven years, he is not a member. He says that journalists who work largely online and in video are often not admitted to the syndicate. Thus many young reporters are not eligible for membership. Sotohy says it is not something he wants to be a part of in any case: “When I go to the journalists’ syndicate I feel like I’m going to the hospital. It’s depressing.”

That said, membership is highly sought after by many, not least because it affords its members 950 Egyptian pounds per month, about $135, in a profession that in Egypt is not very remunerative.

Shahira Amin, a broadcast journalist and senior anchor for state-owned Nile TV, said of her colleagues’ reaction at the Morsi trial: “I think it’s shameful. This guy at least deserves a fair trial.” Amin believes that the charges against the former president are politically motivated. Journalists working in television are not eligible to join the syndicate either.

Though she works for state-run media, Amin has a history of resisting editorial pressure. In February of 2011 she resigned after she was barred from covering protests in Tahrir Square as part of a government-led media blackout. Her show was canceled for a month and a half this fall while she was investigated for alleged, “incitement against 30 June implying it was a coup.” She was ultimately found innocent and her show is back on the air. But it’s not easy. “I feel like my hands are tied,” she says, “If I’m objective, it won’t be aired,” so she steers away from politics, or tries to address political issues indirectly.

The investigation aside, Amin has lost friends over her views. One recently called her a “sleeper cell” of the Muslim Brotherhood (Amin is secular) and on October 1 she penned a column entitled, “A Lonely Battle,” detailing the isolation, and the perils, of speaking out about her views.

Amin says it doesn’t even seem as though the independent channels are under pressure from the regime. She says that the editorial line comes from the owners of the outlets: “The channels are owned by these businessmen who are connected to the old regime, which is the new regime.”

But Amin may have more freedom than most. “I do get away with some things,” she admits. She speculates that it’s perhaps because her show is in English, and that it would be subject to more scrutiny if it were in Arabic. Still, she treads carefully. Many journalists, both foreign and Egyptian, have been targeted by the government and the police in recent months.

Hamed, who works for the state-run paper and the largest media organization in the Arab World, insists that there are no problems between journalists and the police. Not for him, anyway. “It’s enough to say we’re al Ahram,” he says, if he is stopped by a member of the security forces.

Hamed’s paper occupies two 12-story buildings in downtown Cairo. Marble floors and stained glass windows attest to the clout of the 135-year old paper.

Hani Shukrallah, a veteran Egyptian journalist and chief editor of the weekly edition of el-Shorouk, suggests in a piece for the Middle East Institute, that the problem is that, “the very role and mission of journalism has remained bound within an authoritarian mindset, wherein the dominant perception is one of “mobilizing” or “guiding” public opinion rather than presenting the public with the truth.”

The result, he says, is “a virtual collapse of journalistic standards.”

Though Hamed would undoubtedly object to Shukrallah’s assessment, he says that there are limits to what journalists should report on. When asked about Sinai-based reporter Ahmed Abu Deraa who recently received a suspended six-month prison sentence from a military court, for reporting on the effects of the army’s campaign in Sinai on civilians, he responded, “not everything can be published.”