6:27pm , Wednesday 30th September 2020

ARIJ and Ukraine’s RPDI Have Much in Common

December 8, 2017

By Rana Sabbagh,

Dear colleagues from Ukranie, Moldova, Armenia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, Denmark, Lebanon and the USA

Dear Oleg, a decade-old personal friend, and a force of nature behind the growing movement for investigative journalism in Ukraine, in the post-Soviet states and in central Asia.  Your dedication, commitment, integrity and sense of justice add up to a shining light of inspiration.

It is indeed a great pleasure to be here with you today at the 9th annual national conference of investigative journalism in Ukraine, and to talk about Investigative journalism in the age of open data, information leaks and whistle blowers: opportunities and challenges.

But before we start, let me share the common story of ARIJ and the Regional Press Development Institute (RPDI), organizers of the two-day, Dec. 7-9  conference here.

Both projects started at the same time.

We just had our 10th annual conference in Jordan last week. Some 500 Arab and international investigative journalists, editors, trainers attended. Yours is the 9th national conference for Ukranian investigative reporters.

We have common donors who believe in our mission – Denmark, and the Open Society Foundation.

We have a common partner and supporter: The Sarajevo-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project OCCRP.

OCCRP is providing us the technical resources to find, save and search documents in our drive to fight cross-border organized crime and corruption.

They have trained our reporters on how to save and scrape documents, and how to develop a data base. You benefitted too.

OCCRP support and training helped give you the tools to launch the YanukovychLeaks in 2014.  

The YanukovychLeaks team now numbers about a dozen journalists from six outlets plus volunteers who worked around the clock to successfully dry and preserve the incriminating documents left by fleeing ex-president Victor Yanukovych.

The OCCRP support came on time.

Their talented developers built a website within hours to start uploading these documents very fast.

The story of how you all came together in this Leak has inspired all of us.

This great opportunity came at the right time, and colleagues who were trained and ready to react in a capable way, took the lead.

Now Ukranian investigative journalists are a force to be reckoned with here and abroad.

Less than a decade ago, Ukraine had little history of accountability journalism. Those reporters who did ask hard questions, faced persecution or assassination. But working hand in hand with journalists globally makes us all a little safer.

OCCRP is helping ARIJ set up and expand a Middle East and North Africa Data and Research Desk. This desk allowed ARIJEANS to be part of the SwissLeaks, the LuxLeaks, the Panama Papers and, the Paradise Papers.

We provide our users with land and court records, company registrations, and when possible, official gazettes chronicling all public tenders, laws and regulations issued by governments. This is information not previously either easy to get or easy to understand for the public.

The data we have assembled so far covers 11 Arab states. In the next three years, we will cover 20 states.

I encourage you to work with the ARIJEANS. Many investigative reports start in your region and end up in ours, and vice versa. We are just beginning to see and trace these links.

Partnerships that are cemented by all the networking that takes place at such events, is of paramount importance.

ARIJ has also become a movement across the Arab region. At least six national networks promoting accountability journalism have been inspired by ARIJ: in Palestine, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Morocco.

RPDI has become an inspiration for so many local organizations focusing on investigative reporting in Ukraine and beyond.

It’s another way our histories are similar.

Now there are 11 Ukrainian centers doing investigative reporting. They are members in the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN).  

Oleg and myself are founders of the Global Investigative Journalism Network. We both serve proudly on that important board.

The work and professional development of Ukrainian investigative journalists, like their Arab colleagues, was made possible by a steady stream of trainings and workshops led by and for Ukranian and Arab journalists by journalists and other NGO’s from other countries. They have provided expertise, financial support, and publishing collaborations.

Ukraine’s first manual for investigative journalism was published in 2008. A year later, ARIJ published the first Arab manual funded by UNESCO. The manual is translated and adapted from the Global “Story-Based Inquiry” authored by Dr. Mark Lee Hunter and a group of international and Arab experts. This manual, commissioned by ARIJ and implemented by Dr. Hunter, has been translated into 11 languages, including Russian. This means, I am proud to tell you, that ARIJ has contributed to the global development of accountability journalism.

The Global Investigative Journalism Network conferences that we have attended over the years, have brought us together with colleagues from around the world. It’s why I felt it important to be here today. We all came to Kiev in 2011, when you were in the midst of a battle for greater press freedom and access to public data.

A decade later, we are still struggling with the same issues, but you are ahead of your Arab colleagues in accessibility to public records.

The rapid rise of investigative journalism in Ukraine contributed to the 2014 revolt against pervasive corruption and the demand for a culture of accountability.

Without you, Yanukovych might still be in power, and those documents that you collected and uploaded, and the corruption they exposed, would never have seen the light of the day.

Likewise, we know… without the effort of brave ARIJ reporters, many wrong policies exposed by them would not have been reversed.

These Global conferences have helped arm Arab and Ukrainian reporters with tools, training and connections for the important work they do.

Now we are engaged in reports based on real evidence that may point to corruption, money laundering and other crimes.

It is not often easy to see the results of investments in independent media around the world, especially with press freedoms suffering in places like Russia, China, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Syria.

But the stories of RPDI and of ARIJ point to one uplifting fact – there are places where relatively limited support has, and is, paying off.

Like you, we are operating in very difficult circumstances, more so since most Arab governments cruelly cracked down on independent media after the so-called Arab spring in 2011 briefly gave up hope of change.

The Middle East and North Africa continues to be the world’s most difficult and dangerous region for journalists, says the 2017 World Press Freedom Index of the Reporters without Borders.

Eastern Europe and central Asia, the second worst region, does not lag behind. Nearly two thirds of its nations are ranked below or around the 150th mark in the Index.

But in our region, the official sniffing out of reform policies has been fast. Basic liberties, like the right to free speech, have all but been extinguished.

Arab State officials break laws with impunity, secure in the knowledge that there is no accountability in their own countries – and few abroad care or pay attention.

I will not underestimate the obstacles put up by official repression that journalists – including the few brave and committed investigative reporters I work with in the Arab world — face every day.

Even their chief editors thwart many ARJEANS. These editors have learned to master a trade-off for existence that is coming at the expense of fair and honest reporting for public benefit.

Even safe topics like health, education, consumer issues are becoming problematic. A Sudanese editor, for example, who publishes an investigation about illegal chicken farms in the midst of residential areas, but does not want to name one of the main perpetrators because he owns the newspaper.

Or the editor of a London-based pan-Arab regional newspaper owned by prominent Saudi officials refuses to run an investigation about the humanitarian crisis facing Yemen lest he be seen as implicating the Saudi-led Arab alliance fighting the Houthi militias.

ARIJ editors at the Amman hub are hearing more and more from fearful reporters reluctant or unwilling to do final confrontation interviews – part and parcel of ARIJ’s pre-publication editorial requirements for fairness. Reporters worry about physical harm and political harassment. ARIJ editors are increasingly handling written accountability interviews from Amman, even for journalists in Tunisia, long seen as the poster child for the Arab Spring.  

In Yemen, there is simply no free media anymore. Journalists know they either work for pro-government outlets or for Houthi media. If, that is, they work at all in the increasingly violent atmosphere there.

In Egypt the situation is not better. In the past four years, the country has become one of the world’s largest jailer of journalists.

Some editors have forced their staff to sign petitions imploring President Sissi to run again.

In Jordan private and state-run newspapers run virtually the same front page photos and news thanks to efficient “white glove” censorship. The top executive of a new public broadcast station – allegedly promoting a more socially liberal editorial agenda, is appointed by official decree.

In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and elsewhere, laws intended to stop cybercriminals and terrorists are being turned against journalists. While the press situation in individual states has long been sad, the latest Qatar/Saudi Gulf crisis has exposed rot at the Pan-Arab media level as well. No one can now pretend that outlets like Al Jazeera, Sky News and Alarabiya, represent anything more than partisan views. 

Today, Arab journalists are under attack: from their governments, leaders, corrupt politicians, political and economic elites, the man in the street.The press across much of today’s region is mostly viewed as a destabilizing force and a source of discord and disunity. This might be partly true due to deteriorating professional standards and the need to engage in serious self-regulation and compliance with the ethics of good journalism.

Should we give up?

Certainly not.

Like you, we continue the fight for independent media and free speech every day. The road ahead is barred by obstacles.

But at least, technology and open data as well as whistleblowers are making our lives a bit easier, more so for someone like me who started her career in 1984, when we had no laptops or computers. We used typewriters to write our stories. We had to cut and paste papers and use ink whiteners before sending copy to editors. We had to spend a day in the newspaper’s archives looking for information only to emerge with black palms and faces.

There was no Internet connecting the globe.

But for the longest time, with and without the internet revolution, brave and serious reporters worldwide have relied on insiders with the conscience to tell the truth about what they know.

Nothing new about that.

Technology, however, has brought leaks into high relief, and made it possible for: Massive transfers of information never before possible, and for anonymous transfer of information.

The Panama Papers are a great example of both these things.

Leaks also are getting a lot of attention as in the Panama Papers because of new international alliances among news organizations that share information, coordinate and cooperate in checking it out and share responsibility for liability if sued and for distribution.

All this is a great — new tools and methods for greater government accountability and ability to practice good journalism.

But I can’t help to bring up the downside.

Reporters are vulnerable to manipulation at the hand of fake whistleblowers who hand out “tempting information” about political rivals intended mostly to hurt them, and not really to improve governance. This has been especially visible in Tunisia since the revolution.

Also, when you rely only on data for articles and investigations,  you lose sight of people. People as victims and even people as crooks. You end up writing numbers instead of about motivation and psychological causes for corruption. Your stuff gets mechanical, boring, and easy to ignore. You need to humanize your stories, and give a voice to the afflicted.

Great journalism is a rare commodity. It is very much needed.

What is mostly needed are journalists who can use tips and insider knowledge to build evidence and weigh the consequences of what to print and what to leave out and know how to tell stories with relevance and importance to readers and above all, who have no grudges and are fair and balanced.It is our role and job to act as the watchdog in society, to find out what is going wrong and provide the information that will help put it right: To search out injustice and hardship. To speak for the helpless and hopeless. To make life better than it was before. Not to accept and stay silent about injustice, incompetence or worse still, repression and torture and the denial of basic rights.

When there is no free press, this is what you get: One government. One judge. One propaganda machine. More poverty and misery. And many more jails.

Before we end this session, let us observe a minute of silence to honor our colleagues who have been killed for reporting for the truth and exposing wrongdoing.  

Let us remember the amazing work of fallen colleagues, especially Pavel Sheremet and Daphne Cruana Galizia.

Both were killed in powerful car bombs, the first in Kiev in July 2016 and the second in Malta, in October 2017.

Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet’s reporting had challenged authorities from Minsk to Mosco and Kiev.  Daphne Cruana Galizia, is an anti-corruption journalist whose popular blog attacked high-level political corruption, shady business dealings and organized crime on the Island of Malta, where she lived.

The work of Pavel and Daphne, as is much of our work, focused on uncovering corruption, criminality, conflicts of interest and ethical failures in decision making by politicians and their associates.

The most significant investigations by Daphne stemmed from the Panama Papers, a leak of documents from the archives of the offshore law firm Mossack Fonseca.

It is believed that the assassination could be linked to an investigation into fuel-smuggling operations spanning Libya, Malta, and Italy and involving organized crime groups in Sicily.

Authorities now say at least 10 suspects have been apprehended, all Maltese, in one of the country’s biggest police operation.

There is concern, however, among her family and many of us about the rule of law in Malta, a country that has often been branded a haven for dubious foreign money. There is concern about the impartiality and independence of the investigation. The prime minister was a frequent target of her blog reports along with others in his inner circle. Daphne, also wrote critical articles about the senior police officer now running the probe, Silvio Valetta, and his wife, a top government minister.

Our eyes and the eyes of Europe are now on the Maltese authorities. Everyone wants those directly and indirectly involved in this classic mafia-style homicide to be brought to justice. Some colleagues will continue probing her fuel-smuggling investigation and looking into her murder just as OCCRP and Slidstvo.info conducted their own investigation into the murder of and the police probe of Sheremet.

To conclude: I wish you all well. More than that I invite you to join with us to uncover the excesses of power in your world and in ours. The job we all do is not easy,well-compensated or even appreciated by many of the citizens for whom we do it. But be assured, our work is vital and change the world.