Journalist Rana Sabbagh: Life on a Wheel
The following profile is adapted from a post that ran on the “Because we Care” blog in late March, 2018. The blog features professional women who do good work and good deeds.
Hard to believe looking back at her long and distinguished journalism career, but Rana Sabbagh planned to study simultaneous interpretation at Pepperdine University in California after high school.
Her grandfather had other plans.
A conservative man of principle and her legal custodian, he sat her down in May 1980 and informed her that: “In our family, girls are not allowed to go to university in such far places on their own. You have two options. You can either study at the same college in Beirut that your aunties graduated from in the 1950s and 1960s, or, you can work in our car spare parts company.”
Shocked, sad, she picked the first of the options he gave her, and graduated from Lebanese American University with a degree in Communications Art — Drama and journalism four years later – at the height of the civil war there.
“I was in love with black comedy theater. But this type of theater did not exist in Jordan under martial law. I decided to apply for a scholarship in the US to do a masters in drama. At that time, Dr. Amal Sabbagh, my aunt and the person I consider my greatest role model, encouraged me to intern at the Jordan Times newspaper while waiting for the scholarship.”
She introduced her to George Hawatmeh, then the paper’s chief editor, and he put her to work translating news from Arabic to English and learning to write news herself. Her first assignment was covering the elections of a local women’s forum. “I handed him my story on a piece of paper. He looked at it, crumbled it with his hands and threw it back in my face, and said: “This is not a story… Go write another one.”
Today, she admits tearfully, whenever she comes across him, she kisses his forehead. “He taught me how to work hard, in the right manner, to become professional.”
After three months, Hawatmeh offered her a job as staff reporter covering parliament for JD 180 (back them around $500) a month.
And that’s how, influenced by powerful men and her aunts, a would-be interpreter and play producer turned into a journalist instead.
“I discovered how the country is run and how the system works,” Sabbagh said about her first beat. “I also realized how conservative and male-dominated the society is. In general, people were only interested in beauty and looks. This was another real challenge. How to make them look at me as a professional, not a woman.
“I did not wear any make up. I wore shapeless long dresses, or wide-legged trousers and shirts and pulled my hair into a pony tail. I did not want to attract anyone’s attention. I had to read a lot to educate myself so I could talk out of experience and make them respect me as a professional. I was the only female journalist covering parliament.
“This did not intimidate me as I was raised by a German mother who did not discriminate between her two sons and daughter. She treated us as equals, contrary to the mainstream local culture that looked down on women and saw them as inferior to men.”
In 1987, Sabbagh joined the international news agency Reuters as their Jordan Correspondent. “This was the best school in journalism I could dream of working for. There I learnt a lot: how to be professional and accurate and how to verify data before publication. The speed of putting news out never came at the expense of accuracy.” Reuters invested in her professional and personal development. They sent her to three workshops a year and allowed her to buy shares in the company. Because of this, she was able to buy a flat in 1997 for JD 70,000 ($100,000). She was earning around $5,000 a month, twice the salary of an active cabinet minister. “I felt very proud of myself as I became self-dependent and did not need anyone to help.”
In return, Reuters demanded hard work and time. “We worked almost round the clock, especially when big news broke out. It was very difficult to have a private life. I was always on stand-by mode,” Sabbagh said.
She admits she was in no hurry to take on a husband or start a family. “I felt that a husband does not add much. I have my income, house, car, clothes, and a great social life. I was mingling with all walks of society, from kings and presidents to street paupers.” Sabbagh wanted a man who would be a great friend and partner, but was less certain about children. She explained that, “I felt that life is very difficult and…why should I have children only for them to suffer in this life.”
Sabbagh later married Jordanian businessman Nadim Gargour ( who died in a December 2017 car crash). As a new husband he asked her to quit her job, which she did after 11 years with Reuters and serving in many Arab capitals.
“I was exhausted and I thought that now is the time for me to slow down,” she said. As she speaks four languages, she began working at a travel agency he owned. That lasted six months.
Then she rushed back to journalism and to Hawatmeh, her old editor. He gave her a flexible assignment as chief reporter and media trainer.
“This was a great period of joy in my life,” Sabbagh said. “I was assigned the important stories, and I was also helping train a younger generation of journalists who needed guidance exactly like I needed when I started my career. I considered all journalists my children and I gave them the best in me. I felt it was time to give back what was given to me.”
The journalist Sabbagh trained have moved on to become correspondents for international, regional, and local media houses. Others have joined the press department at the Royal Court.
By end of 1999 Sabbagh had moved on too – and was named chief editor of the Jordan Times. She was the first Arab woman in the history of the Levant to run a daily political newspaper.
That lasted three years. The first women chief editor was sacked by the then government of Prime Minister Ali Abul Ragheb for doing journalism with integrity. Her firing came after she directed reporters to look into rioting in the southern city of Ma’an, against the wishes of the government, which controls 66 percent of shares at the Jordan Press Foundation (JPF), publisher of The Jordan Times and the Arabic newspaper, Al-Rai. When her reporters came away with a different view of the rioting than the official version and Sabbagh called for a review of allegations about torture in police detention centers, she was fired.
But before that day, she was a strong and innovative editor. Being so came at a cost to her family life. She would get to her office early in the morning to organize editorial staffing and content, then rush home at 3 p.m. for lunch with her husband. She was often the last employee to leave the office.
Sabbagh credits her staff for the newspaper’s accomplishments during her tenure. “I had a great team of competent editors who were empowered and told to only call me if they had a problem they could not solve on their own. This collective work spirit was a major secret for my success in this very delicate post.”
But, Sabbagh’s management was a key element. She told her team they could write on anything they wanted, provided they were able to provide proof that she could use to defend their work in court if it came to that. This was part of her strategy to increase the credibility of the newspaper and make news important to readers. Starting with four staffers and five freelancers, her newspaper staff quadrupled by 2002. The percentage of locally reported news shot up to 88 percent over translations taken from it Arabic sister newspaper and from the official news agency.
“I was not afraid of anyone. I had confidence in myself and in my professional competences and abilities. I mastered the needs of this job,” Sabbagh said. Even before her firing, she often clashed with powerful officials.
“I refused to heed orders and interferences from the outside. I never glossed over government news to hide facts or mislead the readers. I chose to serve the interests of the public instead of sacrificing my professionalism by sitting in the warm lap of government officials and the powerful. I had no ambitions to use my job to move on to an official or diplomatic job or to serve my personal interests.”
So, when Ahmad Abdul Fattah, chairman of the board of directors of the Jordan Press Association, the publisher of the Jordan Times, called her to his office on a cold afternoon in January, she thought he wanted to thank her before moving on to a new job.
Instead, he told her she was being stripped of her chief editor title. Within minutes her replacement took over, and overnight, the editorial content reverted to the same old protocol and one-side government news.
International human rights groups wanted to report on her dismissal as an act of muzzling free speech and independent media. Again a powerful and conservative male voice interfered with her natural inclinations.
“My husband told me to choose between being a victim, telling my story that would create a lot of reaction and remaining silent in order not to upset his official clients.” Sabbagh wanted to speak out but could not endanger her huband’s business that hundreds of family relied on.
Shocked by the injustice and by being silenced, Sabbagh slipped into a clinical depression. She lost weight. She could not leave her home or speak for weeks. “I felt my whole life was destroyed and I had no purpose anymore,” she said.
Job offers came immediately, however. The Times (of London) hired her as a correspondent. In 2003, businessman Mohammad Alayyan asked her to become chief editor of al-Ghad, an independent newspaper he was setting up. Still bitter, she declined but said she would help out as editorial consultant. As one of the six founding editors, she asked to train new reporters and she began writing op-eds in Arabic.
In them, she questioned the direction of reforms and the failure of the government to act on promises made to the public. She wrote about corruption in the cabinet and some security agencies.
Opinion writing renewed Sabbagh’s love of writing. “I find myself through writing. Writing is my best cure. Sometimes I spend 10 hours in a go writing.” Few things are as sweet as getting work published – or the work of writers you have trained and coached published, she said.
But when she learned that her columns were being sent to intelligence for pre-publication approval, she quit. Four years ago she went back to writing a bi-monthly column when a colleague asked her to open a new page with al-Ghad. In January 2018 she quit a second time after two successive columns questioning the discrepancy between what is being said and practiced by high-level officials failed to run. Now she writes commentaries for “Daraj” a Lebanon-based website started by former colleagues. “I now feel I am regaining my free and independent mind. I write within the parameters of law but I am constantly pushing against the red lines and taboos instead of choosing to lay low so that officials leave me in peace.”
Sabbagh’s main job these days and since 2005 has been running the Amman-based Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), the region’s leading media support network for the hitherto unknown culture of accountability journalism.
She describes ARIJ as the project and mission of her life.
This project began with three Arab states involved and a two-year budget of $250,000. Today, ARIJ is operating in 22 Arab states, employs 24 full-time staff members and hundreds of freelancers and runs on an annual budget of around $1.6 million. Some 450 investigations have come out of the work of ARIJ which helps journalists conceive ideas, gather evidence and write compellingly. No project has been challenged in court. ARIJ has exposed human rights abuses, corruption and miscarriages of justice in a region that is among the worst in the world for media freedom and free speech.
Sabbagh, long fixated on the need for a new cadre of journalists in the Arab World, feels she has met that goal. “We have inspired seven media houses to set up investigative reporting units, and we are a story of inspiration to everyone that has worked with us or has been trained by us,” she boasts.
“I cannot ask for more. ARIJ is a rewarding job. I am able to realize my dreams and to impact society in a positive way. I am my own boss. I have enough professionalism and ethics to do what I can to push the media envelop further.”
She knows much remains to be done. Laws in Arab states work against journalists and public access to information. Many young journalists and students lack knowledge of even the basics of news reporting. They are products of educational systems that have killed creativity, personal independence and critical thinking, in Sabbagh’s view. “Many of the journalists we work with only speak Arabic, while the English is the language of knowledge. For them to grow, to survive and to deal with technology-driven opportunities, they have to be multi-tasked. They need to do the reporting, filming, editing, uploading on websites. To ensue utmost professionalism, they also have to confront the culprits and give him/her the right to reply before the story is published or broadcast,” she explains the ARIJ way to do journalism.
On top of ARIJ and her op-eds, Sabbagh is nearing completion of a masters degree in Positive Leadership and Strategy at I.E., one of Europe’s best business schools in Madrid. To do the research and writing required and to travel to Spain she has basically given up socializing and sleep, but believes that what she is learning will help ensure that ARIJ survives when she steps down, as she plans to, from her daily engagement in 2020.
“I want to make sure that I leave behind a successful organization that will continue for decades. To do so, I have to boost the professional capacity of the generation that will take over from me.”
Her life, Sabbagh says as she has talked about it, was not easy and it has left her with a philosophy worth considering by all.
“Whenever I fell,’ Sabbagh said, “I would aim upwards, relying on my education and my upbringing. I encourage you all to be independent and not to fall back on your family’s money and the luxuries of a good life. Life is like a wheel. It takes you up and down. Nothing is stable and we have to be able to adapt to the good and to the bad days.”