In the past year, a group of Arab journalists has been working secretly in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Algeria, and Yemen as part of a global network of investigative reporters mining the so called “Panama Papers.”
They found that some Arab strongmen and their business partners are linked to offshore companies and bank accounts. They also discovered that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies have been able to skirt international sanctions by registering shell companies in places like the Seychelles.
What’s astonishing about this story is not that Arab dictators are going offshore to hide their wealth and evade sanctions. It’s that a community of Arab journalists is continuing to do investigative reporting in a region where there is increasingly little tolerance for accountability of any kind.
These days, it seems there is only bad news about journalism in the Arab world. Throughout the region, journalists are being jailed or killed, newspapers are being shuttered, and censors are clamping down on independent reporting. In the five years since the Arab uprisings, the story of Arab media is one of closure: Doors that had been pried open have now been bolted by regimes shaken by popular protests, terrorist attacks, and sectarian strife.
And yet, as Arab journalists’ work on the Panama Papers shows, investigative reporting—uncovering wrongdoing through documents, data, interviews, and occasionally, undercover methods—continues, even in attenuated form. But while the revelations from the Panama Papers are rocking governments around the world, reaction has so far been muted in the Arab world. The exposés about Arab leaders’ wrongdoings offshore have not gotten as much traction in the region’s media as they have elsewhere, and Arab regimes have been largely unresponsive to the revelations.
In the past few years, government reactions to media investigations in the region have been tepid. Citizens, too, have become wary of muckraking media. In many places, there is a backlash.
“The unity and positive vision for change that drove the uprisings has degenerated,” writes Marc Lynch, a political science professor who has chronicled what he calls the rise and fall of the Arab public sphere. “Violence, extremism, and war take up the space once occupied by peaceful movements for democratic change. Media platforms that once carried thoughtful arguments are now dominated by demagogues and charlatans.”
“People are more afraid of chaos in the region—the civil wars and failed states, the death, destruction, and drowning—than they are of ‘normal’ Arab repression by the state,” says Rana Sabbagh, a Jordanian journalist who heads Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism or ARIJ, a nonprofit based in Amman, which trained and funded the journalists who worked on the Panama Papers investigation. “For them, democracy, free speech, and accountability equal anarchy and lack of security. They don’t want to become like the Syrian, Libyan, or Yemeni refugees.”
In the past decade, intrepid Arab journalists have perfected techniques for reporting about wrongdoing in restrictive regimes. While citizens and activists have found freedom on blogs and social media platforms, these journalists have opted to stay within the more constrained spaces of professionally run news organizations that operate openly in the public sphere. They have been able to publish accountability stories by using careful and neutral language, providing documentation, and in places where restrictions are more severe, by confining their digging to “safe” topics like education or health.
The independent watchdog reporter is a novelty in the Arab media landscape. “We used to have only two kinds of journalists,” says Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist who is a founder and former chair of ARIJ. “There were either pro-government journalists or anti-government activists posing as journalists. There is now a new kind of journalist who is neither. With investigative tools, these journalists have done a fine job of getting the facts. They were no longer easily dismissed as peddling lies.”
ARIJ, which is funded by European donors, deserves a lot of credit for the emergence of investigative journalism in the region. Since its founding in 2005, it has trained over 1,600 reporters in nine countries. The journalists are taught to use documents, data, and other techniques to find evidence of wrongdoing. The most promising are given grants to pursue investigations with guidance from ARIJ mentors. The ARIJ team that dug into the “Panama Papers” was handpicked from those past grantees.
Until ARIJ came along and helped build syllabi for about a dozen journalism programs, Arab universities didn’t teach investigative reporting. Even now, many journalism instructors there still use textbooks from the Soviet era; many were educated not in free-press regimes but in Russia, Iraq, or Egypt.
In a region where there is widespread skepticism about the West and its intentions, foreign funding is often seen as suspect. ARIJ has tried to assuage these concerns by being transparent about its donors, says Sabbagh, and by pointing out that countries like Egypt and Jordan rely on foreign aid as well. “Conservative politicians have accused us of hanging our dirty laundry out to the world,” she says, “but that is the reality we have to live with.”
Over the years, ARIJ’s annual conferences have allowed Arab journalists to share successes and challenges. I’ve spoken at two of these conferences, most recently in Amman in December. One evening, I sat with a few dozen journalists who were watching investigative segments recently aired on local TV programs. The lineup included a story on the illegal organ trade in Iraq; an investigation of corruption linked to the provision of tax-exempt, disabled-friendly cars in Egypt; and an exposé on an Iraqi governor who allegedly took bribes from contractors providing temporary housing for refugees.
Each film was followed by a spirited discussion on ethics, evidence, and reporting techniques. There were lively debates on unnamed sources and secret filming. I asked Asaad Al Zalzali, the Iraqi TV journalist whose film on the illegal organ trade was shown that night, whether he got any threats. “A lot,” he said. “But it’s alright. It’s my job.”
Today, a community of Arab investigative reporters exists even when it shouldn’t. Most everywhere else, investigative reporting is possible only with some measure of media freedom and public support for a muckraking press. These conditions do not currently exist in the Arab world.
Naila Hamdy, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo, has researched investigative reporting in the region. “The freedoms now are much less than they were prior to the revolutions,” she says. “It’s very difficult to do any serious investigative reporting anywhere, maybe with the exception of Lebanon and a little bit in Kuwait.”
Sadly, the room for maneuver is getting smaller every day. Most of the ARIJ team’s reporting on the Panama Papers, for example, will be published not by news organizations in the Arab world but elsewhere, like London or Paris. In Algeria, ARIJ’s publishing partner refused to print the group’s findings. And in Jordan, the publisher of the AmmanNet website got a phone call from a security official, warning him not to run a story about a powerful Jordanian tycoon’s offshore holdings.
For sure, international collaborations are helping Arab investigative reporting survive. That it exists at all is testimony to a community of journalists has mustered the courage, creativity, and resilience to keep it alive.
Lina Attalah is one of the keepers of the muckraking flame. She is editor of Mada Masr, the Egyptian news site, which has broken stories like the millions of dollars in public funds spent for the upkeep of mansions owned by former President Hosni Mubarak. Last month, Mada Masr revealed the involvement of military intelligence in the 2015 parliamentary elections.
Mada Masr reporters use data and documents like lawsuits and audit reports to shine a light on problems not covered by Egypt’s currently pliant press. They are seldom allowed access to official sources; instead they get their information from public interest lawyers, human rights advocates, and sometimes, government insiders.
“We have a big responsibility to report on cases of police violations, cases of economic corruption, particularly at the [national] level,” Attalah says. “We report on stories that don’t get covered enough in the other media, or if they do get covered, are covered with a great deal of distortion. We feel we have the language and the mechanisms of reporting through which we can produce better stories.”
Mada Masr, like ARIJ, publishes its stories in both English and Arabic, making its work accessible to a global audience. Elsewhere in the Arab world, a number of gutsy, independent, bilingual news sites are pushing the boundaries, including AmmanNet, an Internet-based radio station in Jordan; 7iber, an online magazine, also in Jordan, that has been banned four times; and inkyfada, a Tunisian webzine that publishes in both Arabic and French.
Attalah, 32, began journalism in the twilight of the Mubarak era, when journalists were breaching the limits of press censorship. She was chief editor at the Egyptian Independent, the feisty English-language weekly that, together with its mother paper, Al-Masry Al-Youm, chronicled the first stirrings of discontent that culminated in the anti-Mubarak uprising in 2011. Attalah exemplified the new generation of Arab journalists who refused to be muzzled by the authorities. But her paper was shuttered in 2013, in part because of political differences between the English-language paper’s young, progressive staff and its owners.
Today, Attalah presides over a young staff of 30 and runs the operation much like a journalist’s cooperative. Funded by Western donors and by events and other revenue-generating activities, the site’s core audience is young people in their 20s and 30s, mostly bilingual, middle-class students and young professionals, many of whom took part in the protests that ended Mubarak’s 30-year reign.
Egypt’s tumultuous experiment with democracy came to a close two-and-a-half years after Mubarak’s fall, when the military removed the Islamist government of President Mohamed Morsi from power. The military is firmly back in the saddle in Egypt, jailing and killing dissidents and clamping down on free speech. The popular energies mobilized in 2011 have since dissipated, leaving the young people who took part in the uprising divided and dispirited.
“There haven’t been any channels for them to be politically engaged,” says Attalah. “In general, there is a withdrawal from politics and political activity, mainly because there hasn’t been an inclusive conversation that could engage them. Protesting has become extremely costly, with many of our friends now in jail. There hasn’t been a thirst for protesting the closure of the political space. In my own circle, people have left the country or are struggling with depression. It’s been hard.”
Attalah sees it as Mada Masr’s role to “activate the conversation, to reopen the political space, and engage the public in conversation.” She feels that investigative reporting is a catalyst for such conversations “by pointing to things that we can provide evidence about, in a compelling narrative that renders the conversation more urgent.” Corruption stories, she finds, get a lot of traction. “When we publish something that has documentation, that gives you a sense of the industry of corruption, how it works, how it happens, how it’s done, it gives an urgency. Investigations add a measure of urgency to the political conversation.”
Last November, Mada Masr journalist Hossam Bahgat was detained for three days and charged with disseminating false information after he reported on a secret military trial in which 26 officers were convicted of allegedly plotting a coup. Last month, a Cairo court froze Bahgat’s assets and banned him from traveling overseas as part of a 2011 investigation into NGOs receiving foreign funding.
More and more, it looks like Mada Masr is skating on thin ice. Two years ago, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi issued an amendment to the penal code that imposes a life term on individuals receiving funds from a foreign country or group with the aim of destabilizing the government. In February, the head of a local media foundation was charged with “international bribery” for doing research for foreign organizations without a security permit. Investigative reporting could well be penalized under this new provision, lawyers say.
“If we’re not locked up, if we manage to muster the strength to fight our own exhaustion with all the restrictions surrounding us,” says Attalah. “I’d like Mada Masr to grow, to become a go-to site for investigations and to build a media culture where the public expects this kind of content, and to start believing that bad content or pliant content is actually an insult to them.”
The history of Arab media is one of subservience. Since the consolidation of authoritarian rule in the 1950s, newspapers and broadcast networks have been mouthpieces of ruling elites and drumbeaters for autocratic states.
But starting in the late 1990s, satellite television and later the internet and social media opened up new spaces for public discourse. Throughout the Arab world, journalists and citizens began exploring these spaces and were soon using the new platforms to demand that their voices be heard. Unlike their elders, the generation that had come to adulthood in this new information landscape was not afraid to confront the region’s feckless regimes.
In the past, muckraking flowered in periods marked by demographic change, profound alienation from authority, and technological shifts in the media. The surges in muckraking energies in the early 1900s and in the 1960s and ’70s in the US are partly attributable to these conditions.
Similar disruptions were taking place in the Arab media at the turn of the last century, providing fertile ground for muckraking. Al Jazeera was among those that took the lead, with the Egyptian journalist Yosri Fouda launching the investigative program Sirri lil-Ghaya (Top Secret) in 1998. At the same time, a new generation of journalists was digging into taboo issues like corruption, human rights abuses, and workers’ rights within the bounds of what was possible under the tight rein of Arab autocrats.
Even in Syria, change seemed possible. In 2000, Bashar al-Assad, a 35-year-old London-trained ophthalmologist, succeeded his father as president and promised to open his country to the world. He loosened the muzzle on the press and relaxed the state’s hold on the economy. Emboldened by the reforms, liberal-minded Syrians set up “dialogue clubs” to talk openly about political issues. Independent magazines were published, including one that featured political satire. The information minister encouraged the new openness, as did the internal affairs minister, who complained that state-run publications were unreadable.
Hamoud Almahmoud, a freshly minted journalism graduate from the University of Damascus, joined the staff of Tishreen, the state owned newspaper, the year Bashar al-Assad became president. A native of Raqqa and the first in his family of farmers to graduate from college, Almahmoud knew that his prospects in the state-owned paper were not exactly bright.
When he first came to Damascus to work, he quickly saw that “you might be stupid, you might be lazy, but you can be successful if you have connections, if you have relatives who were powerful people, like generals in the military and the security service,” he says. “Even if you are good, you will not be promoted because the power of those with connections will be stronger than yours. But when private media was opened, I had the opportunity to be in a new magazine and to be editor in chief.”
In 2005, Almahmoud joined Aliqtisadi (The Economist) magazine, one of the new privately owned publications that were allowed to open during what is now known as the Damascus Spring. The same year, a delegation of Danish journalists met with leading Arab journalists, offering to support media projects in the region. Soon afterward, ARIJ was formed with funding from the Danish government. It brought Danish and other European trainers to teach and provided funding and coaches for investigative projects in several countries.
In Syria, ARIJ had a formal agreement with the government: It was allowed to fund projects as long as US money was not involved, the information ministry knew in advance the names of the journalists and their coaches, and ARIJ disclosed the cost and descriptions of the projects. “We had a big debate in the ARIJ board,” recalls Sabbagh, who drove from Amman to Damascus every few months to oversee the projects. “Should we lock horns with the authorities and do tough investigations or should we build up gradually by making sure that the journalists who work with us get the skills of investigative reporting?”
ARIJ’s compromise allowed journalists to practice investigative techniques, but it meant that they had to stick to the rules and report only on sanctioned topics such as consumer issues, environmental problems, public health, education, and the miscarriage of justice.
“I don’t know why the Syrian government allowed it,” says Kuttab, who was then ARIJ deputy chair. “I assume they wanted to improve their relations with the Western world like Denmark and Sweden, which didn’t pose any real danger to them, and they were convinced this wasn’t a plot against the regime. They also needed to break out of the straitjacket they were in but didn’t know how to do it. They were willing to allow us that narrow but important space that we needed.”
Almahmoud was among the first to get an ARIJ grant. “It was literally a turning point in my life,” he says. “I realized that I needed to document my stories, to verify everything, to look for proof for everything, to leave my feelings out and be objective in writing and collecting information. I realized that if I did all that, I could do more sensitive stories. I received fewer threats and fewer bad reactions from powerful people because they saw solid evidence in front of them.”
In Syria, ARIJ-funded journalists worked on stories about issues like air pollution, land confiscations, and medical waste. As the country descended into civil war, however, reporting became more hazardous. Almahmoud’s magazine ceased printing because the fighting made it difficult to distribute copies, although it continued to publish online.
In 2012, as fighting raged in the capital, Almahmoud was asked by the University of Damascus to teach a two-week investigative reporting course. “The university was very close to the frontlines of the fighting between the regime and the rebels,” he recalls. “I was teaching despite all the shelling. Students were really happy to attend the course. For them, it was the first case of a teacher who came from the field. I told them about the latest trends while their professors were teaching from old books.”
Almahmoud remained in Damascus until 2014, when he moved to Amman to take charge of ARIJ’s research desk. With the help of technologists, he is putting together a database of corporate records, court cases, and government tenders from 18 Arab countries. ARIJ has scraped and preserved data from government sites that have since been been erased, although some of these are still on the Wayback Machine, the internet archive. It hopes soon to unveil what may be the most comprehensive, searchable database of public records in the Arab world.
In March, Almahmoud and seven European and Arab journalists published an investigation into the ownership of cargo ships that have been found to be smuggling migrants to Europe. Cross-border collaborations are one way ARIJ hopes to sustain investigative reporting under the current, inhospitable conditions.
Many who ARIJ has trained in Syria, however, have fled; a few have been killed or disappeared. ARIJ-trained journalists are fleeing Yemen as well. Those who remain in these two countries continue to work, increasingly writing under pseudonyms to protect their identities. In the past year, ARIJ-funded reporters in Syria have written about the curriculum of ISIS schools and the booming kidnap-for-ransom business run by both the army and the rebels. A recent report, published under a pseudonym, exposed the secret holdings of Assad’s maternal uncle, using records obtained by Le Monde and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists from a former HSBC employee.
“We are thinking about how we survive, how to keep our reporters working without harming them or exposing them to risks,” says Almahmoud. “I am afraid we are back to square one. We are under pressure. We see the window of hope is narrowing but we are surviving and we are still doing stories.”
In 2012, not long after the Arab uprisings, Hamdy at the American University of Cairo surveyed over 200 Arab journalists, 60 percent of whom said they had worked on an investigative project in the previous 10 years. A good number believed their work brought issues to public attention or resulted in policy reforms. This is quite impressive considering the restrictions on Arab media, although as Hamdy says, Arab journalists define investigative reporting more broadly to include what in the US would be called enterprise reporting, where journalists probe issues that are not widely reported even if they do not necessarily reveal something secret or previously unknown.
Since that survey, however, watchdog reporting has been put on a much tighter leash as Arab regimes either disintegrated into civil war or tightened their grasp on power. Looking back, it now seems that the early years of this century, up to about 2012, were a Golden Age for Arab investigative reporting. Those years saw, in the words of Seba Bebawi, an Australian academic and author of a recent book on Arab investigative journalism, “the rise of a tradition of systematic investigative reporting.”
Writing about China in 2009, UK academics Jingrong Tong and Colin Sparks remarked on the continued vigor of investigating reporting there despite state censorship and advertising pressures on media proprietors. In China, investigative reporting emerged in the 1980s with the opening up of the economy, the removal of subsidies for state-owned media, and the social disruptions that accompanied rapid urbanization and soaring economic growth.
Twenty-five years later, Tong and Sparks interviewed over 70 journalists and found that they had evolved a repertoire of tactics to evade controls, including criticizing the system or a group instead of putting the blame on powerful individuals. What sustained the muckraking impulse in China, they said, was the institutionalization of investigative practices in news organizations and the emergence of a professional ideology among journalists. “There is an evolution towards a self-conception of journalism as being some kind of public service. Journalists see themselves less and less as dependent upon political power and more as a distinct occupational grouping with a distinct function.”
It’s hard to say how Arab investigative reporting will look in 2030. It’s unlikely that the vise-like grip on Arab media will loosen any time soon. The Islamist armed groups that roam the region continue to intimidate and murder recalcitrant journalists. Much of the accountability reporting is funded by foreign money and may not be sustainable in the long run.
Still, Arab journalists are finding new ways to wedge open closing spaces. The prestige of investigative reporting continues to be high among journalists, if not among the public. The self-conception of journalists as nonpartisan watchdogs continues to be upheld by a struggling community of Arab investigative reporters and editors.
“Arab journalists feel that they should be agents of social change, so by performing this type of journalism, they feel they are part of, or working toward, change,” says Hamdy. Despite the narrowing spaces, she says, “there’s a feeling that good journalism has been possible and will be possible in the future.”
This story originally appeared on the website of Columbia Journalism Review and is reprinted with permission.
Sheila S. Coronel is Dean of Academic Affairs at the Columbia Journalism School and director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism. She is co-founder and former executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.