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In the service of the truth

June 20, 2010

By Rana Sabbagh-Gargour Jordan Times – A new breed of Arab reporters has just attended the first regional conference for investigative journalists, in Amman, an unprecedented event in a region still struggling with issues of freedom and democracy. They were guests of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), the first regional media network seeking to promote a professional culture of investigative journalism and to encourage cross-border networking. The three-day event has allowed a rare exchange of tools of the craft among 220 Arab investigative journalists and foreign media professionals from the US, Denmark, Sweden, Britain and the Philippines. In-depth reporting in the West has become an integral facet of daily journalism striving to reach the truth: the facts, as best as they can be determined, laid out fairly and comprehensively. In our region, this decades-old tradition remains a novelty, more of an elite practice by some reporters, as most media outlets are state controlled, or run by pro-status quo individuals with close links to the regime. Investigative journalism involves hardcore, original research and reporting, often unearthing secrets, heavy use of public records that might not be always easy to access, and computer assisted reporting (CAR), with focus on social justice and accountability. It is largely the reporter’s own work, motivated by a sense of outrage or curiosity, which prompts him/her to ask deeper questions to reach the truth. ARIJ is trying to fill the need for in-depth reporting in the Arab world, providing specialised training, small grants, and pre-publication legal screening. The project was launched in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon at the end of 2005, before moving to Egypt in August. It is one of 39 centres operating in 26 countries worldwide, says a report compiled in 2007 by the Centre for International Media Assistance, a project of the National Endowment for Democracy. The project is the brainchild of a dozen Arab and foreign media activists and academics who met under the Danish Media Strengthening Programme for the Arab World and Iran (2005-2009). The network used this weekend’s “Cornerstone” conference in Amman to showcase its novel experience, with a focus on social justice, accountability and the rule of law and to promote its unique methodology, mixing the best Western investigative journalism practices with local specificities and needs. Spreading investigative journalism, however, remains an uphill battle in the region. Jordan is the only Arab country to have legalised the right to access information, but even here, implementation of the two-year-old law is often obstructed by government bureaucracy and legal ambiguities. The region lacks other equally important factors: a reformed legal environment, a tradition of lively and competitive press – with a diversity of owners – and adequate public support for bold journalists willing to break social and religious taboos. Among participants at the Amman meeting are those who came from four Arab countries who maintained their status as “champions of repression” for the second year running, according to the 2008 Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index released recently: Iraq, which still stands at (158th), Syria (159th), Saudi Arabia (161st), and the Palestinian Territories (163rd). Most attendees consider themselves open-minded professionals, keen to push the envelope further. They are capitalising on globalisation, increasing Internet penetration, international aid and the efforts of local groups like ARIJ. The Amman conference agenda and the high-calibre list of professional invitees are sure to help the long-term ARIJ mission: to prepare quality journalists and editors for the 21st century. Participants examined 20 investigations completed by ARIJ fellows, tackling issues of local importance like child and women abuse, environmental ills and low-quality public services. Political corruption and organised crime remain dangerous territory. Three top-notch keynote speakers set the tone for debates: Sheila Coronel, founder of the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism who now directs the Stabile Centre for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University; Egypt’s Yosri Fouda, presenter and producer of the Arab world’s most prominent investigative TV programme “Top Secret”, who has also dug into sensitive issues like September 11, renditions and the Mujahedeen, setting a precedent for Arab broadcasters; and former BBC “Hard Talk” host Tim Sabastian, known for his grilling interviewing techniques with kings, prime ministers and corporate officials. He is now chairman of the monthly “Doha Debates”. The 20 Arab and international panelists are equally impressive. Mark Hunter (US), award-winning investigative journalist and Paris 11 university professor shared his experience in investigating the French right; The Guardian’s investigative editor David Leigh (UK) and his Swedish TV colleague Fredrik Laurin, who uncovered major weapon bribery deals, offered tips on cross-border cooperation; Tom Heinemann (Denmark), winner of the Prix Italia for the TV documentary: “A killer bargain”, exposed how Western businesses exploit the east’s cheap labour and legal loopholes to maximise gains; Lebanon’s Hazem Al Ameen, who unearthed the secrets of Muslim militants in the region in the last decade, was joined by 12 ARIJ fellows who published investigations exposing misery and wrongdoing, and pointing out the failure of some public systems in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. In some instances, people in authority moved to fix the problem, but most articles stirred little debate because newspaper penetration remains low. ARIJ is providing media training, coaching and small grants to cover the costs of investigations, and pre-publication legal screening. It has achieved impressive results in its short life span. ARIJ fellows Fatima Rida (Lebanon) and Lina Joudi (Syria) won the British Inquirer of the year 2007 award for best Arab journalist. Rida documented the plight of thousands of paperless citizens, while Joudi traced the looting of archeological sites. ARIJ also covered ground in preparing the infrastructure to sustain long-term investigative journalism, relying on Arab media professionals to help their Arab colleagues. It has trained 30 coaches from Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt who are mentoring local journalists working on investigations after being trained on the “ARIJ method”. With funds from UNESCO, the network will soon launch its “à la ARIJ” manual in Arabic, French and English for the region’s investigative journalists. Over 40 ARIJ fellows published hard-hitting stories; another 45 investigations are in the pipeline. The quality of their work establishes investigative traditions in local newsrooms. ARIJ also completed the first CAR manual in Arabic, again building on the best of Western practices. It allows computer savvy Arab journalists to create digital files, trace website owners, find deleted or old information online, do advanced Google search, and encrypt files and flash devices. ARIJ is looking for donors to fund CAR workshops in regional newsrooms, starting in the four countries of operation. Journalists from Yemen, Palestine, Iraq and Bahrain, expressed desire to see ARIJ operate there, but the network needs to find donors to fund horizontal expansion. The past three years have not all easy for ARIJ. It is taking a long time to change the mindset of Arab editors. Many have misinterpreted the Western term investigative journalism, and still use the literal translation of the words, “tahqiq sahafi”, to refer to news, feature stories, not investigations. Half way through their investigations, several ARIJ fellows gave up on getting information from tight-lipped officials. Lack of public information, statistics and reliable databases is another problem. Moreover, not all editors are career journalists who believe in the value of professional training. They do not encourage their top beat journalists to move away from quantity to quality reporting and do not believe that in-depth investigations can help increase readership and revenue. Some are appointed functionaries of the state, more concerned with pleasing their masters than with informing their readers. It will take some time in the Arab world until the environment for investigative journalism matures and nonprofit, local training centres of excellence multiply. But the experiment of ARIJ is allowing a new generation of Arab journalists who insist on sticking to their principles to find truth and to ask the critical question of “how did we get there”. The writer, ARIJ executive director, contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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