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.
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.”