Investigative journalism in the Arab world

Rana Sabbagh at a workshop in Cairo

Exposing the truth and bringing accountability in the changing Arab region today have never been more important. Yet investigative journalism still remains a rare journalistic genre. The Amman-based Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) describes itself as “the first and only initiative of its kind” dedicated to promoting quality investigative journalism across the Arab region.

ARIJ’s executive director Rana Sabbagh is a Jordanian journalist, columnist and media trainer with 28 years of experience in print journalism. The former chief editor of the Jordan Times (1999-2001), Sabbagh is also a regular columnist for the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat. She shared her insights into the practice of investigative reporting in a talk with Alessandra Bajec.

What role does investigative journalism play in the Arab media scene today? 

There is none, this is why we’re here. Before ARIJ was founded in 2005, most journalists didn’t know about this type of reporting. There is now more awareness in the region, but we don’t see any investigative journalism practised in the media.

In the early phase of ARIJ, we produced investigative reports on socio-economic issues such as education, environment and small corruption. Since the Arab Spring, there is a tendency to investigate political corruption, money laundering, and organised crime, especially in Egypt.

Right now, I’m encouraging journalists to document stories about topics that were not explored during the Egyptian revolution, namely the killings, cases of torture and rape.

What hands-on tips can you give Arab reporters who want to practise investigative journalism?

I advise them to be well-versed in computer technology and proficient in at least one foreign language, preferably English. Nearly all the journalists we work with speak Arabic only, so we have started running English language classes at ARIJ.

Investigative journalists need to have a lot of legal training, learn how to apply the hypothesis-based inquiry methodology, and ensure that their story is viable, fact-evidenced, well-resourced. This should enable them to challenge assumptions and draw conclusions from various arguments.

What makes a distinguished investigative reporter is a good flair for news, the ability to detect stories that will become big topics and to do the follow up.

It’s very important for investigative reporters to do the interviews in person. Unfortunately, many journalists rely on the internet, e-mails, and don’t meet people. Instead, they should show initiative, leave the office and speak to people.

Journalists need to be organised in managing their investigations, keep a record of every interview. More generally, they should think in a systematic way and document every data and figures obtained, check the collected information, compare sources, and build up their database.

What are the latest media tools and techniques available?

At ARIJ, we teach our journalists how to apply advanced Google searching techniques for tracking information. They learn how to make use of free websites and online databases to dig accurate information, gain access to public records, and locate documents.

We provide training on the application of Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR) tools which enable today’s multimedia tasked journalists to use and manage data effectively.

Cross-border networking is also very effective for investigations. Last December, ARIJ published its first cross-border investigation, carried out by two journalists from the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm (now Egypt Independent) who tracked the wealth of Egyptian oil and gas tycoon Hussein Salem, the right-hand of former president Hosni Mubarak.

We have recently learned about an electronic dashboard, a revolutionary device designed by Paul Radu, executive director of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). It’s a digital space that allows journalists to access electronic databases and company files, to extract information and find resources. The dashboard was key to our first cross-border investigation.

Over the next three years, we’ll continue to train journalists in applying multimedia tools to enhance the effect of their investigations. We’ll promote new platforms for research and to dig deeper into stories. We also have another project called ‘Hack the Hackers’ that will help to protect sensitive digital sources.

What are other existing resources?

The best resource is ARIJ’s manual ‘Story-Based Inquiry’, a guide to basic methods and techniques of investigative journalism. It is our Bible for trainers, coaches and journalists and it has been translated into nine languages. There’s hardly any literature around the world, let alone in the Arab world, and this manual offers a unified methodology that anyone conducting investigations can refer to.

There’s a common assumption that the main issue for a reporter is finding information. Instead, the guidebook has a systematic approach called ‘hypothesis-based inquiry’, meaning that a story is only a hypothesis until it is verified.

We’re currently working with university professors to introduce the manual to undergraduate students. We see the manual as a learning kit for Arab journalists. It is our most successful product.

What impact do you think the growing use of social media has on investigative journalism?

They are good tools that investigative journalists should use for reference only. One investigative tool that can be useful and improve data collection is crowd-sourcing via Facebook or blogs. Journalists can make an open call to a large group of people in order to obtain comments and tips, or ask for specific help.

At ARIJ, we recently signposted an Egyptian journalist who wants to write about missing Egyptians during the revolution, on a Facebook page with an interest in the same topic in order to help him gather more data and receive tips.

What other initiatives are helping to promote investigative reporting in the region?

There are few scattered initiatives in the region. In Iraq, there is now a national forum for journalists, mainly run by Kurds and Shi’ites. In Morocco, there is the ‘Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalists’ (AMJI). Right now, I’m trying to encourage a group of outstanding journalists from Al-Masry Al-Youm (now Egypt Independent) and the Press Association in Egypt to set up an Egyptian network for investigative journalists.

This being said, ARIJ remains the only centre with a unique offer of training, media coaching, funding, technical and legal assistance. Within three years, we are going to have at least 12 investigative units in the established media. Ideally, ARIJ aspires to become an umbrella for national investigative projects in the Arab region.

This article was first published by European Journalism Centre, EJC.