Nearly seven years ago, I met Danish journalist and freedom of media defender Jesper Hojberg in Amman Jordan and mentioned that we needed help in the Arab region with investigative journalism. Before long, Hojberg and his International Media Institute were able to help us translate this dream into a project that this week brought the largest gathering of Arab and international investigative reporters, experts, university professors and donors in Amman.
The Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism(ARIJ) held its third annual conference this week with more than 300 participants that included keynote speakers from leading Arab publisher Hisham Qaseem to leading British journalist Tim Sabastien, and dozens of workshops. We were also fortunate to have booked Julian Assange a day before the biggest selection of secret diplomatic cables would be published by him on WikiLeaks. The connection between our ARIJ conference and WikiLeaks was not lost on major wire services, CNN, Al Jazeera and French24 an Arabic language satellite channel from Paris. Of course the interesting connection, other than the content of hundreds of thousands of cables, continues to be how such an idea can positively affect investigative journalism in the world’s most dormant (from a press freedom point of view) regions. On the WikiLeaks website surfers are reminded of the simple idea that courage is contagious. And already we have a united crowd sourcing effort around the world to translate to Arabic as many as possible of the cables and make them available.
The groups that have popped up on Facebook (WikiLeaks in Arabic) or on google, are also mirrored in local regions. Two Jordanian websites 7iber.com and Ammannet.net have agreed to cooperate between themselves to translate and make public in Arabic and English as many of the WikiLeaks documents as possible. A message has been sent to Assange to include Radio al Balad and AMmanNet in future cooperation with Arab media, an offer that Assange made to the Amman ARIJ conference. Rana Sabagh the executive director of ARIJ called in her weekly column in Al Arab al Yowm for a Jordanian WikiLeaks that can expose the many corruption cases that are usually talked about in private. She then lists someof them including the Dead Sea Casino, the government’s blatant interference in the 2007 elections, the Abdali Complex, the Iraqi Voucher case and the secret bank details accounts of Jordan’s leading politicians and businesspeople benefiting from various local and regional tenders and contracts.
Introducing the concept of investigative journalism to the Arab region has taken some time. When journalists use the Arabic word tahkik (investigation), they actually refer to a feature story. We had to introduce the words tahkik istiqsai to plant the concept of investigative reporting that is done in a scientific and methodological way, after painstaking research that can span months.
Neither did we have any idea, when we agreed with Mark Hunter and Yosri Foda to help us produce an Arabic language manual for investigative reporters, that it would be a worldwide hit. The ARIJ manual is now available in five languages and taught at universities the world over.
The biggest surprise, of course, was the huge response from Arab journalists who yearn to learn the nitty gritty of a hypothesis-based investigation. Already nearly 100 such investigations have been done by Arab journalists with help from Arab and international instructors. The process produced some big investigations that brought about changes in laws and follow up by governmental bodies, eventually moving into the realm of media outlets who, for some time were our biggest obstacles. Editors and publishers, mostly in government-owned media, had no interest in reporting that could shake up the status quo and pit people against governments or businesses.
Privately owned media, however, stepped in and asked to be included in our training efforts. While this process has also been shaky at the beginning, ARIJ has succeeded in setting up investigation units in six media outlets in Jordan, Palestine and Egypt.
The IT revolution has been a big bonanza for this kind of investigations. The "computer assisted reporting" has been a fixed feature in ARIJ’s training programmes, especially during the annual conferences. ARIJ is now planning to establish a website that has a special, closed, section for ARIJ investigators who can benefit from expensive search engines and other data bases.
A look at the winners of this year’s ARIJ prizes can best reflect the importance of investigative journalism in the Arab region. In Kurdistan, the winner exposed the practice of female genital mutilation, while in Baghdad, an investigation was carried out about how Al Qaeda is recruiting children. An Egyptian reporter revealed the dangers of chemicals used in the furniture business and a Jordanian well-researched and written report exposed the lack of a mechanism to enforce the Freedom of Information Law. A radio investigation, also in Jordan, revealed the existence of a village in the Jordan Valley with children whose Egyptian parents have been unable to live in Jordan and they, for the most part, became alcoholics.
Arab reporters have shown that they are willing to investigate their own communities. While many reports focused on consumer issues or the environment, the fact that young journalists are learning the tricks of the trade and are communicating with regional and international fellows bodes well for the natural progression of this form of investigations.