Challenges Facing Investigative Journalism in the Middle East
Future Center UAE– Investigative journalism is a unique type of reporting. It involves not just relaying information but entails an in-depth research, using impact-driven approach in order to reach accurate conclusions that are unbiased and untainted by the beliefs or views of the investigative reporter. This makes investigative journalism a crucial and sensitive tool in uncovering corruption and violations in the public and private sectors since its inception.
Despite a long-standing worldwide concept of investigative journalism, its introduction to the Middle East is a recent development. This concept had been absent in regional journalistic traditions, yet the first investigative journalism article in the region was published in the 1950s. However, this type of journalism waned because of multiple challenges that prevented it from being sustainable in the region, until media freedoms led to investigative journalism making a comeback.
Political changes in many Arab countries since 2011 allowed the return of investigative journalism. This is evident in many institutions sponsoring training programs and units on investigative journalism in several countries, such as Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian Territories.
Syrian journalists, in cooperation with a group of academics and media experts, launched an association called the Syrian Investigative Reporting for Accountability Journalism (SIRAJ) in November, 2016. The Tunisian association for investigative journalism and the network of investigative journalists in Palestine were also established in the same year. Earlier, in 2012, the association of Yemeni investigative journalists was created, whereas the Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism (NIRIJ) was founded in 2011.
Several years prior, Jordan and Morocco took relatively early steps regarding this issue by creating Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) in Jordan in 2005 – the first Arab network focused on investigative reporting – and in 2009, the Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalism (AMJI) was created.
This new interest in investigative reporting in regional countries was accompanied by integrating this form of journalism by Arab media outlets to the existing media environment, while maintaining the basic features of investigative journalism in uncovering corruption. Thus, investigative journalism in the Arab world focused on violations by the private sector, influential businessmen, environmental issues and workers’ rights as well as other similar issues.
However, a key shift occurred in investigative journalism in regional countries, namely a focus on terrorism and radical groups, with a large volume of investigative reporting on these topics that resounded in conflict areas in the region, despite the risk and inability to protect journalists doing this work.
This trend began during the War on Terrorism in Afghanistan, then the Iraq War that resulted in several noteworthy investigative reports such as abuses at Abu Ghraib prisons. Also, ISIS’ actions in areas under their control in Iraq triggered Al-Hayat newspaper to publish an investigative report entitled “Christians after Mosul: The Middle East is no longer fit to live in” published in Al-Hayat newspaper on August 22, 2014. The report addressed the issue of early displacement of Iraq’s Christians from Mosul after ISIS took control of the city.
Investigative reporting also has a strong presence in Syria since the start of the revolution until today. Foreign and Syrian investigative reporters diligently work to uncover regime violations against demonstrators and military operations after the situation became more complicated there due to the involvement of many players in the conflict. Investigative journalism also uncovered the siege of the Syrian town of Madaya.
Broadcast media in the region are also relying more frequently on investigative journalism. Contrary to the global trend of greater investigative reporting in printed media, it has been a growing trend in Arab broadcast media for years. These include Sirri Lil Ghaya [Top Secret] on Al-Jazeera TV channel; Sena’at Al-Mawt [Industry of Death] on Al-Arabiya TV channel; and Al-Muhaqiqun [Investigators] on Morocco’s Medi 1 TV.
With growing interest in investigative reporting by broadcast media, several television channels created investigative reporting units to boost the credibility of their reports on key issues. Al-Jazeera created the “investigative reporting unit” in 2012, and in the same year, the Egyptian ONTV created the first television investigative journalism unit in Egypt in cooperation with International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).
Investigative journalism and television investigative reporting in many regional countries face multiple challenges that limit their expansion, despite their assumed significance. Most notably:
1- No protection for the investigative team. This is a structural problem for journalists around the globe, especially for investigative reporters since most media outlets do not provide their reporters with the necessary protection measures in danger zones by coordinating with relevant parties in those areas. This makes it more difficult for investigative reporting because oftentimes this means discretion and secrecy, especially on issues of political or economic corruption. This exposes the reporter to direct retribution if those they are investigating uncovered their identities.
2- Lack of funds at many media outlets, especially the printed press. Unlike other forms of journalism, investigative reporting requires funding to cover the cost of travel for the investigative team, especially since investigative reports take a long time to gather information and compile a final report. In addition, the willingness of media outlets to take on disputes or legal action against them by those under investigation, at a time when many press organizations suffer financial problems that sometimes lead to not paying their staff.
3- Lack of laws protecting access to information. In general, media activities in many regional countries suffer from lack of legal frameworks that allow and guarantee access and dissemination of information. This makes investigative reporting based on facts and information, rather than personal assumptions, more difficult. Thus, an investigative reporter is put in a dilemma of how to gather information through personal contacts and other means, while reducing the error margin resulting from lack of information. Otherwise, the investigative report would be unprofessional if the reporter does not reveal they were unable to access certain information.
In conclusion, the future of investigative journalism – despite its importance and success in regional media – remains conditional on funding and legal support for this type of journalism- in order to play its pivotal role in uncovering facts and violations without falling into the trap of easy options and unprofessionalism.