‘A director also does the dishes’

Rana Sabbagh on Nordic values and doing journalistic investigations despite a closing media space in the Middle East

The ARIJ19 Forum kicks off in Jordan in November and as per usual, it is ARIJ executive director Rana Sabbagh who will welcome investigative reporters to this regional gathering. She has done so many times before. But this ARIJ Forumis special for Rana, as it will be her last. After 14 years as director of the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, she is leaving the organisation to take on new challenges.

With funding from the Danish-Arab partnership programme, IMS set up ARIJ back in 2005 in very close collaboration with Rana Sabbagh.

Here she reflects on important moments and the impact of investigations.

“I look back on 14 years of very hard work with journalists – I call them ARIJ’ special forces – operating in 16 different countries, four of which are outright war zones. (Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen). A good number of the more than 600 investigations undertaken during my time as director has been carried out by people willing to take on a risk by merely working with us. It always requires integrity, commitment and perseverance to pursue stories on corruption and abuse – and even more so in this part of the world where media freedom is very low and where journalists and independent media are directly targeted.”

What are the reasons for ARIJ’s success? “A key feature of any ARIJ investigation is our insistence on confronting those accused of wrongdoing. ARIJ is really working hard to spread the culture of “accountability journalism” in Arab newsrooms and academia. Everyone should have a chance to explain themselves. Right from day one, I have insisted on running a ‘glass house’ operation. When you work to expose corruption and other malpractices, you must not make it easy for those wanting to hurt you to challenge your own ethical standards. ARIJ admin staff recently showed me the very first payment receipt. We keep it all. Still. Just as we have always paid taxes, bills and asked investigative reporters to do the same. They may have cursed as our admin staff asked them for their taxi driver’s name, but such high standards are a necessity.”

“I also want to mention that none of our investigations have ever been contested in any court – to me a testament to our rigorous legal screening ahead of publication. Some reporters have lost their jobs following their investigative work with ARIJ – and many of our journalists received threats. In two cases we had to pull journalists out of Syria to protect them from ISIS’ threats related to an investigation into school books being printed in areas under its control in 2015.”

Rana Sabbagh in IMS’ Copenhagen office with a statement on media freedom, 2015.

Role model out of office

As the ‎former chief editor of The Jordan Times, Sabbagh became the first Arab woman to run a daily political newspaper. Asked about her position as a role model for other women working in media she says:

“Journalists I have worked with, whether male of female, have often told me that they are inspired by my courage, commitment, hard work and defiance.”

I always encourage them to love what they do, to work hard, to learn something new every day and to spend more time out of the office talking to people than sitting behind the computer”.

Any challenges working with a Nordic organisation?

“I know that to IMS, ARIJ is a flagship operation and a longstanding success story. For ARIJ, IMS was our creator, but as we grew merged into our supporter and now our strategic advisor. I have also benefited personally from being exposed to your Nordic ethics and values. Many years ago, I visited the office in Copenhagen and noticed how natural it was for your director – who that day happened to be the last person to leave the premises – to clean up the dishes in the kitchen. As the last person to leave that was just what you did. Even as director you are still very much part of a team, and for us all in ARIJ its never been just a job. Its been a mission, a movement – a family.”

Rana Sabbagh takes a long break here to gather herself before she continues; “I gave a bit too much at some point and had to take a break to avoid complete burn-out.”

Still, while on sabbatical she helped design the ARIJ strategy 2020 and beyond. Going forward ARIJ will pursue closer collaboration with civil society organisations to ensure investigations lead to reforms and change.

From January 2020 Rana Sabbagh will join OCCRP in Sarajevo as MENA Investigative Editor. She looks forward to learning more about data journalism investigations and to continue advancing stellar investigative reporting in the Middle East.