On 5 October 2010, Mr Eissa, editor-in-chief and founder of the private daily Al-Dustour, was dismissed from his job within 24 hours of the newspaper coming under new ownership. Before the sale, Al-Dustour’s new owners had given assurances that they would not interfere in the newspaper's editorial line, but after his dismissal Mr Eissa claimed they had asked him to hold publication of an article written by prominent political reform leader and former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei. Within hours of his refusal to remove the article, Mr Eissa was relieved of his duties.
Al-Dustour was first published between 1995 and 1998, when authorities banned the weekly paper following a letter from the militant group Gamaa Islamiya that appeared in the newspaper. Mr Eissa tried to register a new newspaper a total of nine times in subsequent years, but until 2005 his request was always denied. With his sacking at the end of 2010, many observers believe the spirit of Al-Dustour has also left the publication. The suggestion is that it has become very governmental in tone, and there were unconfirmed reports that circulation had plummeted from 85,000 to 4,000 within a month of Mr Eissa’s departure.
In 2008, Ibrahim Eissa received the Gebran Tueni Award, WAN-IFRA’s annual prize that honours an editor or publisher in the Arab region. Mr Eissa is widely credited with having played a decisive role in both the editorial integrity of Al-Dustour and its circulation success since it reappeared on newsstands in 2005 after a seven-year hiatus.
His staff describe him as a team leader and fearless pioneer when it comes to crossing red lines or reporting on sensitive issues, and Mr Eissa has a reputation for being a staunch defender of press freedom. Al-Dustour's tackling of important issues ignored by the state-owned media and also by opposition papers brought it closer to ordinary readers, but also made the publication one of the top enemies of the state until the very end of the regime.
WAN-IFRA: Given your latest treatment, does anything surprise you about what the regime is capable of doing?
Ibrahim Eissa: “Firstly, I am not surprised as it is clear that the regime is tyrannical and opposes the freedom of the press. Secondly, the Egyptian regime had the chance to make political reforms as a result of external pressures, whether from the United States or other Western countries, and since this pressure was removed it is natural that the regime would once again attack freedom of expression. Thirdly, the regime is preparing itself for parliamentary elections and thus far it has been clear that they are capable of falsifying the results. For them to do this again, it is important to control the freedom of the press to prevent the uncovering of the issue. In fact, the real surprise for me has been the attitude of Western governments and societies that seem not to care less, who haven’t condemned the deterioration of the situation for freedom of speech in Egypt.”
WAN-IFRA: Journalist Issandr El Amrani describes you on his blog as “the single most critical voice in the Egyptian media”. Is this an accurate description?
Ibrahim Eissa: “I am the only journalist whose 10 newspapers have been closed, whose two books were confiscated, who was forbidden from presenting TV programmes and against whom they have raised 65 cases and four sentences. In the end, after all this, I obtained a presidential pardon. I think that the journalist’s description is justified. I think it is accurate and I thank him for it.”
WAN-IFRA: Tell us a bit about the spirit that was Al-Dustour; it is a publication known through the Arab world and even internationally as having something very unique in its philosophy and even in its way of reporting the news. Can you put that into words for us?
Ibrahim Eissa: “No red lines: we talked about all the politicians without any boundaries, including the President himself. We worked professionally, using humour, employing cartoons and writing satirical headlines. We opened a space for all political trends, from the extreme right to the extreme left. We focused a lot on youth, the new generation, and were the bridge between the traditional media and online platforms since we used Facebook and online blogs. Of course what characterises Al-Dustour is more its courage; we are not afraid to express our ideas.”
WAN-IFRA: What was your relationship like with the two new owners before they took over? Did you know them and had you worked with them before? Did you know what to expect?
Ibrahim Eissa: “I knew Sayed Al-Badawi from public relations, he was a member of the Wafd party, but I did not know Mr. Edward at all. I met him twice before they bought Al-Dustour. It was clear that they would not accept the editorial policy and we knew that a clash would happen. I’d said in an editorial board meeting that we have a beacon of freedom in Al-Dustour, and are we to give them its keys as soon as they buy it, or do we resist? We decided to resist until the very last moment, and when Al-Badawi decided to dismiss us, we left.”
WAN-IFRA: Did this make you suspicious of the motives behind the acquisition?
Ibrahim Eissa: “The regime tried from the beginning to stifle the message of Al-Dustour through a series of carefully constructed plans. To begin with, they tried to change Al-Dustour’s editorial policy through trials, cases, and sentences. Then, two members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) - Mohamed Abu Elemad and Hisham Tarek Mustafa - tried to buy Al-Dustour. I’ll briefly explain the incident involving the millionaire Hisham Tarek Mustasha. I asked him ‘So why do you want to buy Al-Dustour?’ and he replied, ‘It is a gift for my father.’ Since I knew that his father was dead I asked him ‘Who is your dad?’ and he replied, ‘Why, President Mubarak.’
“The third plan was conducted through two members of the Wafd party. They offered the owner 16 million Egyptian pounds (€2M), pretending they were from the opposition party so that it would appear they’d agree with the editorial policy. Only afterwards did they move to eliminate Al-Dustour.”
WAN-IFRA: You received a lot of support from your journalists and there have been great expressions of solidarity from within the media community and wider society towards Al-Dustour.
Ibrahim Eissa: “This is very much the positive side of Egypt. For the first time Egyptian journalists are defending their message not their jobs, and this is very important in the Egyptian context.”
WAN-IFRA: Does this make you think that the issue is bigger than Ibrahim Eissa, that the reaction reflects something more fundamental about Egyptian society?
Ibrahim Eissa: If Egyptians acted as Al-Dustour journalists, Egypt would change in 48 hours. There is a big difference of course, but this is definitely a sign.
WAN-IFRA: How much was Al-Dustour a symbol for independent thought in Egypt?
Ibrahim Eissa: “I do not want to come across as presumptuous by saying that Al-Dustour was the only newspaper that represented independent journalism in Egypt, but in many ways this is the truth. Until our editorial group quit, Al-Dustour was the only newspaper to be owned by a publisher. The other titles and TV channels in Egypt claiming independence are owned by businessmen that have huge companies linked to the government, therefore they can not be independent. It is impossible for a person like Salah Diab [founder of Al-Masry Al-Youm], who owns 43 franchises of American firms and who works in the property business, to be independent from the state.”
WAN-IFRA: So in that case, with the demise of Al-Dustour, the independent press no longer exists in Egypt?
Ibrahim Eissa: “Not exactly. There are some newspapers trying to be free and independent, but we can’t consider them 100% independent in comparison with Al-Dustour. It is very difficult to find a newspaper with the same editorial policy as Al-Dustour."
WAN-IFRA: What’s next for Al-Dustour?
Ibrahim Eissa: “We have been making improvements to the website since the newspaper went exclusively online. Our site was listed number 16 of the most influential websites in the Arab world. We would also like to publish a new newspaper, but this one will be different because the Egyptian people will own it. We would like to call for donations and subscriptions of around 200-300 (25-35€) Egyptian Pounds in order to give them the chance to receive the newspaper. The regime of course will not allow us to do that, so we are thinking of buying a newspaper and then shifting it to an independent status.
“This will be before the elections of 2011. I think that when the regime applies pressure on you and pushes you one metre back, it means in reality that it can push you as much as 10 metres back. There is a necessity to resist and minimise these setbacks to just a few centimetres by opening a new newspaper when they close the old one. It is important not just to stay at home and watch what is happening.”
WAN-IFRA: Despite all these setbacks how do you maintain the passion and the fire to continue?
Ibrahim Eissa: “Actually, despite all these pressures, I’ve had the chance to meet many interesting people who are keen on establishing new titles, professional journalists who want to fight for freedom of expression, as well as people who are interested in reading new newspapers. So I think we are in a powerful position while the regime is in a weak one; they closed our newspaper because they feared us, but they will fear us more when we open a new one.”
WAN-IFRA: Do you think that Egypt is capable of the institutional change required to make press freedom and independent media a reality?
Ibrahim Eissa: “Now, no, but doesn’t mean that Egypt is not capable. I think that Egypt can be a respectful and developed country through its institutions. I think we need six months to make the necessary changes in Egypt; of course we should have freedom of expression, freedom of the press, free elections, and a change in the current regime.
“We have an authoritarian regime that created two types of media - a public media that it controls directly and a private one that it controls indirectly. The creation of the second type of media was to pretend in front of the West that independent media exists in Egypt. Operating outside of this was Al-Dustour that the regime closed to make sure that only two types of media survived.
“Our mission is to create new newspapers owned by people themselves, not by businessmen, and the success of these newspapers will encourage others to do the same. As a result we will create an alternative independent media based on freedom of expression.”
WAN-IFRA: Is there still room for future generations of young journalists aspiring to become the next Ibrahim Eissa to engage with the media and get involved with newspapers to create a space for free expression?
Ibrahim Eissa: “Today it is difficult, but not impossible. Any journalist who wants to express his ideas freely can do so, but he needs to suffer clashes and to resist and not surrender. These are the essences required to be a successful independent journalist.
“Now blogs are used for expressing opinions, for writing diaries and thoughts. We need to use them for real journalistic practices such as opinion articles, analytical pieces, investigations, interviews and more.”
WAN-IFRA: Al-Dustour - third time lucky?
Ibrahim Eissa: “Absolutely! There will be a third Al-Dustour, it is not necessary to call it Al-Dustour but it will have the spirit and the editorial policy of the old newspaper, that I can guarantee.”
Ibrahim Eissa’s message to the international media community:
“Freedom of opinion and expression is a human necessity and a universal freedom - it is not related to a place, a time, a state or an individual, but to all humanity. Therefore, the suffocation of freedom and freedom of expression of the Arab journalist today, whether in Egypt or other Arab countries, as well as the confiscation of newspapers is a human, political, professional and international concern and should be resisted by supporting the Arab media to stand up to the tyranny and despotism of their regimes. This has to come from journalists themselves, as our mission is to look for the truth and uncover our own freedoms.
“The mission of any journalist, be they in Uruguay or New Zealand, is to defend freedom of speech and search for the truth. From here, any solidarity or support to raise the voices of those Arab journalists living under tyranny and despotism is essential and a responsibility for all journalists and “pen holders” the world over.”
Cairo, 15 November 2010.