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Despite growing repression, investigative journalism survives in the Arab world On media challenges in the region as the ninth Annual Forum of Arab Investigative Journalists opens today

On a savagely hot day in August 2004, a group of Arab and Danish journalists sat around a fountain in the courtyard of an ancient Damascus house, sipping fresh lemonade to quench their thirst.

They had no inkling of the war, the killing or the turmoil that would engulf the region in the years to come.

But they had a project in mind that they hoped could bring peaceful change: a Danish-funded investigative reporting program for the Arab world that would boost accountability, free speech and independent media. A bold attempt to bring water to a thirsty land.

After debating a few names, they settled on “ARIJ” (Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism), but also an Arabic name meaning “the beautiful scent of a flower.”

Two months later they had their first board meeting in Amman. ARIJ, they agreed, would work in stages to promote the culture of investigative reporting in Arab newsrooms by disseminating new skills. They would also assist journalists in focusing on issues of public concern, prioritizing democracy and the rule of law. But they would move carefully. In countries with severe press restrictions, they would confine their work to “safe” topics, like health, education, consumer issues, women’s rights and the environment.

Thanks to funding from the Danish parliament, ARIJ would train, coach, bankroll and assist with pre-publication legal screening to try to mitigate the risks. There would be benchmarks for excellence.

The board hired an executive director to run the project in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, three neighboring countries with very different political and media environments, before expanding to other Arab states. For a while, change — positive change — seemed attainable.

Leaders in Jordan and Syria had succeeded their fathers and promised reforms. New, privately owned media outlets were blossoming in an atmosphere of greater openness.

Out of a one-room office in Amman, ARIJ started to lay roots across the region. By 2008 they had expanded to Egypt, followed by Bahrain, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen and Tunisia.

“Journalists have more to worry about than their governments. Those who risk life and liberty often encounter a surprising lack of public support.”

Today ARIJ celebrates its 10th anniversary in nine Arab states. In the next few years, it intends to expand further, working with individual journalists and local investigative networks.

ARIJ’s core achievements already include championing the emergence of investigative journalism in a region with no such tradition. Since beginning formal operations in early 2006, ARIJ has trained over 1869 reporters, media professors and students. Around 400 hard-hitting reports exposing wrongdoing through investigative techniques have been broadcast or published in local, regional and international media. Many have sparked reforms, sometimes immediately.

After one ARIJ-sponsored story, Jordan’s King Abdullah ordered a ministerial committee to uphold the rights of children in line with international standards and to end their abuse at the hands of caregivers behind closed doors.

In Tunisia, it took two years for the government to start closing childcare facilities that were reportedly preparing children to become militants, but only after a high-risk investigation involving an undercover female reporter with a hidden camera strapped to her body.

For the first time, seven leading Arab universities are now teaching ARIJ’s three-hour credit course on the basics of investigative journalism and at least 20 others are using the manual Story-Based Inquiry. Both were compiled by Dr. Mark Lee Hunter, a Paris-based award-winning investigative journalist, now a media professor at INSEAD. Since its publication by UNESCO in 2009, Story-Based Inquiry has been translated into 12 languages.

For the last two years ARIJ’s MENA Research and Data Desk has assisted dozens of Arab and international journalists in uncovering fraud in the region and beyond. It has played a crucial role in the global network of investigative reporters, sifting through the Panama Papers, the largest cross-border investigation to date.

At least 10 Arab journalists, mostly publishing under aliases and in foreign media, exposed a network of offshore companies and bank accounts linked to Arab strongmen and their business partners. One reporter revealed how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies have been able to avoid international sanctions by registering shell companies in safe havens like the Seychelles. Another detailed the fortunes of senior Yemeni officials and businessmen.

ARIJ has supported Arab — not western — journalists investigating Arab dictators and uncovering their financial dealings — an important precedent to establish.

With the help of IT experts and EU funding, the ARIJ Desk is now putting together a database of corporate records, government tenders and land deeds from 18 Arab states. It has collected and preserved data from government websites, many of which have since been erased, and hopes to soon release a searchable database of public records in the Arab world. Every month, ARIJ researchers get an average of 18 requests for assistance from Arab and international journalists.

These achievements are bright moments in a seemingly impenetrable darkness surrounding Arab media, in which press freedoms have been in free-fall for the last five years.

Across the region the task of investigating and holding officials accountable is becoming more complicated and dangerous: journalists are being jailed and killed and censors are clamping down on independent reporting.

After China, Egypt, has become the world’s second biggest jailer of journalists. Extremist groups are also targeting the press. Last year, members of the Islamic State caught a Syrian freelance journalist filming in one of their schools. His cameraman was interrogated and a week later his throat was slit on camera.

In the spring, Mostafa Marsafawi, an ARIJ-sponsored journalist who documented cases of death, torture and abuse by officers of Egypt’s Central Security Forces, was fired from his job. The BBC, which screened the televised investigation, was heavily attacked by at least four pro-government talk show hosts. And so was ARIJ. The Hashtag #BBC#plots against Egypt trended for a day.

But journalists have more to worry about than just the government. Those who risk life and liberty often encounter a surprising lack of public support, as citizens trade basic freedoms and democratic rights for nothing more than vague promises of stability and economic prosperity.

“Free speech and honest reporting should not become optional extras on a balance sheet. They are indispensable components of a democratic society.”

There is a greater fear of chaos than of known repression. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that free and independent journalism has become a lesser priority.

So, what is to be done? Should Arab investigators give up on unsupportive societies and wait for better times? Many insist they’ve come too far to turn back. And yet the cost of continuing their work is daunting.

New anti-terrorism laws introduced by Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, along with internet surveillance and restrictions, have dealt a severe blow to investigative reporting. As a result, state narratives dominate the public sphere and officials can easily escape accountability.

On top of this are the economic realities that are complicating journalists’ lives. Investigative reporting has never been a profitable business, especially when it relies on the support of governments or foundations. And now funds are dwindling and costs are increasing.

Donors have new priorities amid a global and intensifying refugee crisis. The world needs to find homes and support for 60 million displaced people fleeing conflict and economic hardship. Sooner or later we journalists have to learn to sustain ourselves.

Having said this, free speech and honest reporting should not simply become optional extras on a balance sheet. They are indispensable components of a democratic society — vital safeguards against dictatorship, tyranny and lawlessness.

We fought to initiate them in this region. We fight to maintain them. We don’t intend to give them up now.

It is in this spirit that the ninth Annual Forum of Arab Investigative Journalists opens on Dec 1, 2016 at the Dead Sea. More than 350 Arab journalists, editors and media professors will debate growing censorship across the region, along with rising disinformation. Meeting under the theme “ARIJ: A decade of investigating the Arab world — hearing, seeing and exposing,” they aim to exchange necessary skills in encrypting software and files, physical protection and digital narration.

A lot is expected of them. They need and deserve your support.

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Rana Sabbagh