Rana Sabbagh on ARIJ: 2006-2019

Below is an interview with ARIJ’s first Executive Director Rana Sabbagh, one of the founders of the leading Arab investigative journalism network that formally started its operations in 2006. Now, Sabbagh, a career journalist since 1984, is moving to Sarajevo to work as MENA editor at OCCRP.ORG, a high-tech, non-profit global investigative journalism platform and network that specializes in cross-border crime and corruption. It connects 45 non-profit investigative centres in 34 countries, scores of journalists and several major regional news organizations across Africa, Asia, the MENA region and Latin America.


For nearly 15 years. Sabbagh devoted her time to spread and consolidate the hitherto unknown culture and practice of investigative journalism across Arab countries, starting in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon before expanding it into a Pan-Arab movement of “accountability journalism”.


Sabbagh has extensive experience as a journalist, columnist and media trainer at Arab and international media outlets. Between 1999 and 2001, she became the Arab world’s first female editor-in-chief, as she pursued the role at Jordan’s only English-language daily, The Jordan Times. Before that, she worked with Reuters for 10 years in its Jordan and Dubai offices, where she covered the Gulf region, Iran and Yemen. She also helped launch Al-Ghad newspaper, Jordan’s latest independent daily in 2004. She wrote for The Times, London for nearly 10 years and worked part-time with Al-Hayat newspaper. Sabbagh is also a certified consultant for Thomson Reuters Foundation for Media Training.


Rana has been elected as representative for the MENA region on GIJN’s Board of Directors for 3 consecutive terms


She stepped down from her position at ARIJ on January 1, 2020 in line with her public announcement in 2016 that she would leave ARIJ at the end of 2019 to make way for new blood to keep ARIJ going and ensure its vitality.

ARIJ as a regional brand for quality


ARIJ is an unprecedented success story that started with an idea and an impossible dream: How can a culture of investigative journalism be institutionalised in the Arab world, under largely autocratic regimes that do not tolerate free speech and independent journalism, wide-ranging freedoms and pluralism? Today, 14 years on, ARIJ has become a world-respected brand for high-impact quality investigative journalism in the MENA region and beyond. All those that have worked with ARIJ: its journalists, editors, media professors, administrators and boards of directors, and the donors who have and continue to support ARIJ, are proud of what this network has achieved against all odds. ARIJ has demonstrated the importance of research-based, accountability journalism, and of documenting and fact-checking information in a systematic way to uncover issues of concern to the public in Arab societies in favour of accountability and rule of law. The world, including our region, needs investigative journalism and well-trained journalists who can speak truth to power.


The extended ARIJ family


For me, every day and every moment with ARIJ over the past 14 years was a memorable, meaningful and a rewarding challenge with the ups and downs of working against daunting legal, cultural, political, professional and societal challenges, to promote investigative journalism, a main pillar of accountability in any functioning democracy.


I have learned so much from thousands of mostly amazing journalists and media professionals I worked with in the Arab world. We had great win-win exchanges. ARIJ has been and continues to be a mission and be the project of my life.


It is very fulfilling to plant olive trees and watch them grow their fruit and flourish across the Arab world. I consider myself extremely fortunate that I had the opportunity to make my dream of setting up a professional centre of media excellence for public good come true: the dream of ARIJ that no one believed would become a reality. Today, we can all see how far ARIJ has come and the heights it has reached: Qualitative and quantitative accumulation, professional expansion and a bright example of what investigative journalism is and should be. ARIJEANS, as many of the journalists who have worked on investigations with support from ARIJ like to call themselves, realise the importance of being watchdogs of their societies, and not dogs sitting in the warm laps of the powerful. ARIJ built its brand of regional and international excellence through adhering to strict ethical and professional standards and to a tested methodology behind producing investigations, from the inception of the idea, to facing the perpetrator who is meant to have answers to questions posed. The wrong-doers, or culprits, who are exposed in investigative reports, including officials and criminals, should get the right to explain themselves or to respond to what the investigation has uncovered. Accountability takes place after documenting the issue at hand, which in turn helps reveal the truth. It is the antidote to living in a world where millions are propagandized and misled by government-funded propaganda machines, the vanity press of political parties and oligarchs, or the deep-pockets of organized crime.


Journalism is the “Fourth Estate”. Investigative Journalism is the “king of journalism” as it needs development of speciality skills such as conflict interviewing, finding and understanding public records, data analysis, sources development etc., some of which are rarely used in daily journalism. Investigative journalism sheds light on the world’s darkest corners. It is equally hard to find investigative editors who can train new investigative journalists, more so in regions where there is no tradition of investigative reporting. Hence the relevance of the work of ARIJ as a network that provides specialized training, individual coaching and pre-publication legal screening as well as funding. Investigative editors and journalists are hard to find and harder to keep. Our hope is that our investigations play a pivotal role changing the situation to the better in any given society and in exposing corruption and abuse of power — one of the main triggers for all uprisings that have hit the region since 2011, and most recently in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq. We encourage independent, quality journalism that tells the story as is and not what officials want journalists to say. It is better to reveal our problems and try to help solve them, than let things boil until they explode.


Planning for a parallel experience outside of media


In early 2019, ARIJ launched a curriculum for teaching investigative journalism in Arab universities. It constitutes three credit hours and is based on ARIJ’s methodology of investigative journalism that is used for training journalists in line with “Story-Based Inquiry: A Manual for Investigative Journalists””. The latter has created a common language between ARIJ trainees, trainers and coaches on the concept of inquiry and the process of carrying out an investigation from A-Z. The curriculum, funded by UNESCO since its launch in 2008, has been translated into 16 languages. As a result, Arabs continue to contribute to the global investigative journalism movement.


ARIJ: Exemplary Succession Planning


In 2016, I informed ARIJ’s Board of Directors of my desire to leave ARIJ by the end of 2019. Thus, they sent me to one of Spain’s leading universities to do a Master’s in Positive Leadership, Strategy and Innovation. My capstone project focused on succession planning at investigative journalist non-profits. This paper — probably the first of its kind on these bodies worldwide — illuminated three modes of power transfer.


At the beginning of 2019, the board selected the toughest mode of power transfer by giving me a year-long research sabbatical that would free me to work on a new draft strategy for ARIJ 2021-2025. By removing the head from the body for a year they were able to expose the strengths and weaknesses of the organization. During my leave, a three-member executive committee led by Yousef Abu Odeh, the financial and administrative director and my right arm for 13 years. It included Program Director Tamara Qaraien and Interim-Managing Editor Saad Hattar. This committee was in daily contact with a mini committee from the Board of Directors, headed by its chairman, Dr. Yasmine Dabbous, to manage the daily work of ARIJ. Meanwhile, I toured similar comparable organisations in Europe and the USA to see how they are running their organizations. I also spent a month at the OCCRP. I found out how unique ARIJ is the advanced financial, administrative and editorial systems ARIJ has created.


Planning for the future of ARIJ


Through my exchange of knowledge and experience, I prepared a 2021-2025 draft strategy for ARIJ entitled “Consolidation, Collaboration and Maximised Impact”, leading to the growth of an emerging Arab investigative journalism environment and strengthening the “human assets” of ARIJ by investing in its veteran ARIJEANS and attracting the promising new generation. The draft strategy, along with an in-depth background research paper, and three qualitative and quantitative surveys of ARIJ services by academics, journalists and students, will be studied and finalized at a retreat in early February by the ARIJ BoD, new Executive Director, and staff.


During the ARIJ12 Forum two months ago, I announced my departure. And ARIJ Chairwoman Yasmine Dabbous announced the board’s decision to appoint our propitious colleague Ms. Rawan Damen as ARIJ’s new Executive Director. This was a moment of tremendous joy for all delegates and for ARIJ stakeholders as ARIJ was handed over in a secure and systematic way along with its role, and relevance to a colleague who shares the ARIJ mission and vision.

Rawan started her new position on January 5, with the help of a wonderful team at the office and around 600 ARIJEANS around the Arab world, who have produced investigations that have contributed to change. The ARIJEANS are the real assets, along with independent Arab media institutions and platforms, and local organisations run by ARIJEANS, who have accumulated investigative journalism experience with international standards. In the next five years, ARIJ seeks to enhance its cross-border partnerships with international organisations specialising in data journalism, money tracking and corruption. The future will not be better unless we all collaborate to complement the needed skill set and technology advancement. Stronger collaboration with independent Arab media platforms across the region, investment in emerging investigative networks in several Arab states mostly by ARIJEANS and building the capacity of veteran ARIJEANS as well as new journalists, it the way forward. This also needs to be supported by closer collaboration with international entities like the OCCRP, ICIJ and others. “We either swim together or drown together” because competition has become fierce, the cost of investigative journalism is increasing, and the available funds are decreasing.


Cross-border collaboration


In 2008, ARIJ played a pivotal role in establishing the international investigative journalism network GIJN, headed by David Kaplan. GIJN holds an international conference every two years for investigative journalists. ARIJ has applied to host the next global conference in Jordan in 2021. As Kaplan said during the annual ARIJ Forum in 2010: “Today, ARIJ is the address of investigative journalism in the Arab world. Any journalist from the international community who needs to work with a journalist in the Arab world, knocks on ARIJ’s door.”

Sabbagh with her fellow GIJN board members
Sabbagh with her fellow GIJN board members

ARIJ is not only a regional brand for media excellence. Over 8 ARIJEANS are now members of the ICIJ, the international network that revealed the award-winning PanamaPapers, Swiss Leaks and other ground-breaking investigations with the participation of ARIJ. Many of ARIJ’s investigations, including those with ICIJ, were published under pseudonyms for fear of punishment, prosecution and imprisonment. ARIJ’s goal was never to gain fame, but to dig out facts and safeguard the lives of colleagues.


ARIJ also has a distinguished partnership with the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which includes a large team specialised in data journalism and data science engineers. OCCRP has the largest data search engine in the world that contributes to uncovering cross-border corruption and organised crime. By joining the OCCRP team, I hope to learn new skills, and to work with veteran ARIJEANS, who need more advanced training and access to what OCCRP has, to investigate corruption and abuse of power. This will ensure continued professional development and innovation between East and West.


Investigative Units in the Arab World


Before ARIJ, there was a lack of understanding among the majority of Arab journalists, university professors, students and even editors-in-chief, of the distinction between a report, let alone an in-depth report and an investigative report. Here, I recall how ARIJ contributed to the clarification of the concept of what constitutes investigative journalism. ARIJ also motivated colleagues to introduce investigative units in a few independent Arab media, and to set up investigative networks in Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Palestine and Syria. Through these existing units and the upcoming networks, the practice and relevance of investigative journalism is gaining traction. It has and is demonstrating the importance of accountability journalism to both officials, to journalists, and to society at large.


Firstly, ARIJ supported the creation of investigative units at Al-Jadeed TV headed by our colleague Riad Kobaissi. ARIJ assigned a Danish TV investigative editor to work with Riad and his team. Over 12 hard-hitting investigations have been broadcast by Riad and the team. After the start of anti-corruption protests in Beirut late in 2019, Riad has become the address for any Lebanese who needs to expose a grievance. Riad says the hard work is finally paying off after telling me for years that nothing is changing despite the hard work of his team. He would tell me “we work hard, we broadcast and there is no reaction; I am wasting my time, and I am not seeing my family. I see no value in continuing on this path”. My reply to Riad would be: “remain patient… change does not come in a day, it is not our role to enforce change, our role is to produce investigations that could become part of the national agenda and motivate decision makers to take the right decisions after we document and reveal errors. You will gain experience with every investigation you conduct, and your experience will accumulate. The day will come when you will reap the rewards of this time invested in developing your skills.”


Now, after the revolution in Lebanon, Riad has an evening programme on Al-Jadeed TV entitled “Down with the rule of the corrupt”. He persists despite being subjected to campaigns of taunting and treason against him and Al-Jadeed. The importance of investigative journalism as a tool of promoting accountability is now clear.


In other countries, investigative units supported by ARIJ are still working, such as Jordan’s Al-Ghad newspaper and Radio Al-Balad, and Palestine’s Watan TV, which has won many awards. ARIJ has also established investigative units in Egypt’s Al-Watan and Al-Masry Al-Youm and Tunisia’s Tunis Afrique News Agency (TAP). Today, many ARIJEANS have assumed leadership positions in media institutions in most Arab countries, where they are pushing for the institutionalisation of investigative work. In the new strategy for 2021-2025, ARIJ will look for further cooperation with editors-in-chiefs and media professionals who believe in the importance of investigative journalism. It is suggested that ARIJEANS contact parliamentarians, civil society organisations and officials who believe in reform, every time they publish an investigation, so the latter can follow up on ARIJ’s investigations and try to influence change.


ARIJ and Arab universities


A decade ago, most Arab universities did not teach investigative journalism, mostly to avoid trouble with governments, especially since most are public institutions and the introduction of this curriculum requires many years of work to change curricula through government-controlled committees. As a result of holding training and dialogue sessions with university professors, most confirmed that they feared teaching the course because, unlike their peers in the West, most did not work as investigative reporters before they entered the academic field. Due to this dilemma, we created this curriculum.

We hope this guide is an inspiration. Within two weeks of being made available on the ARIJ website, it received 4,000 downloads, including 400 university professors from 80 different Arab universities. Now, ARIJ is working with them to study how to enhance the curriculum’s integration into their teaching. The author of the guide, Dr. Mark Hunter, is currently in talks with UNESCO to publish the guide in various languages, to turn it into a global inspiration. Mark Hunter also was the lead author of “Story-Based Inquiry”.


Inspired by ARIJ, the Institute of Science and Communication (IPSI) at Tunisia’s University of Manouba, launched the first two-year training course for MA in Investigative Journalism in 2015. We consider this to be one of ARIJ’s many successes.

Sabbagh with university professors during a workshop on teaching the ARIJ curriculum in Arab universities
Sabbagh with university professors during a workshop on teaching the ARIJ curriculum in Arab universities

The development of Arab journalists


The percentage of investigative journalists from the pool of journalists around the world does not exceed 12%. Every ARIJEAN who has done an investigation with ARIJ, has told us that they discovered the difference between their old and new method of work. Some of them are no longer able to return to work in institutions because their politicized editorial policies are no longer appropriate. Some others left investigative work due to poor monetary return.


At the beginning of ARIJ, the majority of investigations were published in print, as, at the time, this was the most popular form of media compared to the West, where online platforms and digital media were becoming more popular.


In 2014, we commissioned a study on how to turn ARIJ from print into TV… One of the recommendations was investing in a multimedia master class over six-months to create a kernel for journalists to be able to engage in TV investigations.


During this course, participants’ skills were developed in video, script writing, editing, storytelling and digital security. It was a wonderful opportunity for all ARIJEANS who took part in it. Participants included colleague Riad Kobaissi, Ahmed El-Shamy, who now works for the BBC Arabic digital investigations, while Ahmed Suleiman and Ahmed Ragab are now leading digital investigations at Deutsche Welle Arabic TV in Germany. Mustafa Marsafawi worked with ARIJ to produce “Death in Service” before moving to the ARIJ office in Amman to work as a “Senior TV Editor” for three years. Mariam Nasri from Tunisia produced “Torture in Tunisia” for AJE and Sameh Al-Laboudi is now completing his doctorate.


In 14 years, ARIJ has held specialised workshops in various fields to develop the skills of Arab journalists. We have trained over 2,800 journalists, editors, university professors and students, and have produced 600 investigative investigations in multiple forms. None of the ARIJ investigations have ever been challenged in courts. These ARIJEANS are the core and strength of ARIJ. The more investigations they produce, the better their skills become. ARIJ has won over 150 local, Arab and international awards.


Lessons from Reuters


After 36 years of journalism work, I always remember the beginnings of my career when I was hired by Reuters News Agency as Jordan correspondent in 1989. I consider the ten years I spent with them as the most important learning-phase of my career and professional life. There, I learned the art of writing under pressure, accuracy, editing, sourcing, data verification and how to gain the trust of your sources.


Since I left Reuters in 1997, I have shared the knowledge I gained in traditional, good-quality journalism, with all Arab journalists I have dealt with.


Traditional journalism means good journalism because it encompasses qualitative analysis, data analysis and matching and comparing information from multiple sources, speed and technique. The technology that has ravaged the world of journalism and media has changed a lot in terms of narration and data analysis, but it will never take the place of good traditional journalism that needs personal communication with sources and gaining their trust. Technology will never be an alternative to making professional content based on traditional practices of journalism. But on the other hand, technology saves time and effort and demands new forms of story-telling and content display to reach the tech-driven audiences.


Working with OCCRP


At OCCRP, I will be supporting ARIJ and encouraging tech-driven, cross-border investigations into illicit funding and organized crime. I am sure it will allow me to focus on what I enjoy most, which is being a journalist and mentoring others to produce top-quality investigations of impact. I am confident I will learn a lot and I will be able to pass on the knowledge to other colleagues. But ARIJ will remain my first love as it was not only a job and an office but a professional goal, and life mission.


Moments Rana will not forget from her journey with ARIJ


The most difficult situation I encountered was during and after training a group of Syrian journalists who had to leave their country due to the war. The workshop was held in Istanbul in 2015. I could not sleep for weeks just thinking of the harsh experiences they went through as recounted to me.

Most of them were tortured in jails of Damascus under President Bashar Assad, before they fled to areas that later on were captured by ISIS and other so-called members of the opposition. Everyone went through a nightmare and could not afford trauma treatment. One of them was assigned to carry the corpses of dead people from torture chambers inside jails under the control of the Syrian regime, to a bathroom that was turned into a waiting room before being moved to a car that took them for burial in mass graves. In another situation, ARIJ had to immediately evacuate a Syrian colleague from Aleppo while he was working on an investigation into ISIS curricula with another colleague outside Syria.

The journalists sent a cameraman without ARIJ’s knowledge to film the printing of ISIS curricula. The cameraman was caught and beheaded after he informed ISIS of his colleagues working on the investigation and about ARIJ. On the same day of his escape from Aleppo, an explosive barrel was dropped on his home, killing his sister and his mother. Despite the pain and the agony, they all went through during the war and later on as refugees, the majority of this cohort of participants have accomplished wonderful investigations with us several times. Several of them have set up the Syrian Investigative Reporting for Accountability Journalism (SIRAJ) Project. Some have won international awards. Another now works in Berlin for a top investigative journalism media platform.


Another cause of extreme stress ensued after most of the ARIJEANS in Yemen were forced to deal with the sudden reality of life under the Houthi rebels or the internationally-recognized government. Some have not been paid wages for over three years. Others have escaped the country, and some have been tortured and questioned by both sides.


The Yemenis I have worked with are among the best journalists who have worked with ARIJ. They showed unprecedented eagerness for training and learning. They are hard-working. They will remain the nucleus of ARIJ in Yemen and, when the war ends, their professional skills will be in high demand.


The last four years in ARIJ have been very difficult because of the repercussions of the crackdown on the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 that raised brief hope for change. Tunisia remains the only poster child of this period. The rest of the states have cracked down on media and freedom. Others like Syria, Yemen, Libya have been engulfed in war and instability. The rolling back of media freedom has been most felt in Egypt after President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s accession to power. Media managers were asked not to work with ARIJ. This meant a greater risk for journalists who wanted to participate in ARIJ’s trainings and produce investigations with ARIJ’s support. Several colleagues who I considered brothers and friends stopped responding to my calls in order not to be held accountable.


After we published “Death in Service” with BBC Arabic in 2015, the hashtag #ARIJandBBC trended in Arabic as conspiring to topple the regime in Egypt.


When ARIJ won the Raif Badawi ‘Courageous Journalism Award’ in 2018, I was very happy because this was the first time ARIJ as an institution won a prize. But the moment of overwhelming happiness is whenever an ARIJEAN completes an investigation that contributes to making change for the better, sometimes quickly and forcefully, and sometimes after years of work. The completion of every investigation is like giving birth to a beautiful and healthy child after nine months of anxiety, fatigue and constant worry.


Another experience that shocked me most was when the then government of Ali Abu Al-Ragheb fired me as Editor-in-Chief of the Jordan Times for refusing to publish the government’s one-sided official account of the outbreak of riots in a Jordanian city. The government, I was told, was unhappy because I questioned allegations of torture at police stations in a newspaper that was largely owned by the state.


Tips for Arab journalists


  • Do not despair no matter how difficult the conditions and how great the obstacles.
  • You must have a dream and a goal, and you must plan to reach the goal and plan to deal with the obstacles that stand in your way.
  • Learn new things hourly and daily.
  • Set aside egos because that is the beginning of the end for you and others.
  • Develop your technical and professional capabilities.
  • It is imperative that the journalist be fair, honest, and transparent. You have to lead by example…
  • My advice to women is to continue working away from the challenges of society and to look at themselves professionally and not from a gendered perspective.
  • Not every journalist is an investigative journalist, but investigative journalists can conquer any type of journalism.
  • Investigative journalists play a real role in fighting corruption and injustices and in revealing what is hidden.
  • Failure allows us to learn and develop. No gain without pain.
  • English is the language of knowledge and must be mastered if you want to break into the international media sphere.