Mention Syria, Yemen or Palestine and most westerners think death, destruction and civil war. But Saba Bebawi sees a different kind of uprising – a “silent revolution” where investigative journalists are increasingly uncovering and publishing stories about the social, environmental and economic issues causing upheaval in the Arab world.
Our vision of journalism in the Arab world is that of imprisoned correspondents and beheaded reporters. Images in the media, like those of Australian journalist Peter Greste sitting behind bars in an Egyptian court, have played a central role in the formation of this vision.
In short, the world sees journalism practice as being restricted in Arab countries, and investigative journalism non-existent.
Yet few people around the world are aware of a silent revolution that Arab investigative journalists are undertaking in the Arab world. A wave of investigative journalism practice is slowly growing in the region. This has been made possible by the establishment of the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) in Jordan. It’s the first institutionalised investigative journalism training on offer in the Arab world, and is provided through a Danish-Arab partnership program.
Today, ARIJ trains investigative journalists across nine Arab countries – Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Bahrain, Palestine, Yemen and Tunisia.
But investigative reporting in the Arab world is not new. In the 1950s and 1960s, a few reporters, such as Ihsan Abdul Quddoos, syndicated columns for government newspapers and magazines. Quddoos’ column, entitled ‘At a Cafe on Politics Street’, addressed current issues circulating in cafes in Cairo at the time, thus extending discourses from the physical public sphere to that of the mediated public sphere.
It’s unclear why institutionalised investigative reporting has not been established earlier, but it can be attributed to political constraints which continue to exist and impede the work of investigative journalists. The range of topics that can therefore be reported on within the Arab public sphere are limited to social, environmental and economic issues rather than political corruption, for example.
Yet, as I argue in my recent book, Investigative Journalism in the Arab World: Issues and challenges, investigative stories at a grassroots level play a vital role. Not only do these stories address the concerns of Arab societies – the rise of prices, cost of living, and the widening gap between rich and poor – but they have a direct impact on peoples’ daily lives and wellbeing. For these reasons, it’s important not to disregard the impact of current practices of Arab investigative journalism, even if they don’t always tackle major stories of political significance.
Of course, some investigations do. What is particularly notable in this silent revolution is the practice of investigative journalism in conflict zones in the Arab region, such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen, which continue to uncover issues relating to the conflict.
One Yemeni journalist told me about how he continues to write in Yemen, which is currently experiencing war. He does so by publishing under a pseudonym and sending his stories to news websites operating outside of Yemen. He continues to practice journalism, and has not given up, risking his life and that of his family.
In Syria, two journalists, Mokhtar Al-Ibrahim and Ahmad Haj Hamdo, worked on a story that uncovered how thousands of displaced Syrian refugees had fallen prey to war merchants exploiting their absence to sell their properties through fraud.
Overall, the investigation took six months, with the two journalists conducting their investigations by repeatedly visiting notary departments and tracking down the steps needed to issue forged power of attorney documents. These kinds of documents, created by civil servants and lawyers, enabled war merchants to sell the homes of civilians who fled the Syrian conflict in 2011 and only uncovered the crime when they returned years later.
During their investigation, Al-Ibrahim and Haj Hamdo faced mobility challenges, especially in Aleppo province where they were trying to reach the courts under a barrage of artillery shells and explosive gas cylinders. But this constant political instability didn’t stop them.
Nor did the reporters’ lack of training. Only one of the reporters, Al-Ibrahim, had the opportunity to participate in a training course on the basics of investigative journalism with ARIJ in Jordan.
Haj Hamdo, on the other hand, was unable to attend the training due to restrictions on his travel. However, he was quick-witted and eager to learn. He began teaching himself investigative reporting in the heart of Damascus, surrounded by war and mortars, by taking notes from his colleague who had attended the training, reading the ARIJ training manual and studying published investigations of other Arab journalists.
In fact, it’s not uncommon for journalists in conflict areas to report on issues that require immediate attention, but who themselves lack the know-how to go about it. The training of investigative reporting therefore continues to face many challenges, however Arab journalists are increasingly becoming aware of the power they hold in potentially achieving change.