Innovative Tunisian media holds authorities to account

The Tunisian NGO Al Khatt and its online media Inkyfada are showing the way for press freedom and independent, investigative reporting in a country that still struggles to uphold the gains post-Ben Ali.

Tunisia is often cited as the most liberal country in the MENA-region and as the only country, which has truly benefitted from the uprising(s) in 2011.

“In Tunisia, I think we can have higher expectations than just that the police don’t arrest people for being activists. This is behind us, okay, but we still a lot of other problems. Corruption is killing the state, we have a big economic crisis, and there is a problem of management and distribution of resources,” says 42-year old Malek Khadhraoui.

He is the publishing director of Inkyfada, a Tunisian online media, which since 2014 has focused on investigative journalism wrapped in visual storytelling and interactive reading experiences.

Recently, Inkyfada published a long piece on the uneven development in Tunisia, focusing on the issue that big cities and coastal regions have been prioritised over the rural parts of the country in terms of government investments. Using Kasserine, one of Tunisia’s poorest regions, as example, they discovered that for the past five years 80 per cent of the money set aside for developing this region had not been spent.

“It was not only a question of money because the state did not even succeed in implementing things for which they already had the money. It was a question of inefficiency, corruption, and mismanagement,” Malek Khadhraoui says, clearly angered, and continues:

“Our story explained to the people of Kasserine why their situation is so bad, and this is in the heart of what we want to do – give more insight into complex issues and go behind the superficial explanation.”

The DNA of Inkyfada

On the website of Inkyfada, it reads:

Here, we take the time to give information that counts and well-researched content. gives the key to understanding and reflecting upon the society in which we live.

Malek Khadhraoui nods affirmatively as he listens to the words, before adding:

“The good story for us is a story that can give people the information they need in order to have an opinion. And then we want to counterbalance the unique voice of the mainstream media who just broadcast the official [government] version without any contextualisation, without any critical questions.”

Furthermore, Inkyfada focuses a lot on the visual storytelling and interactive experience readers get when visiting the webpage – often they spend weeks developing special designs for the stories.

“This is the DNA of Inkyfada. It works just like a media lab with journalists, developers, and graphic designers,” Malek Khadhraoui says.

An example of this is at story on presumed Tunisian terrorists. Being more a narrative than an actual article, the story includes text and graphics wrapped into an interactive visual design while at the same time providing interesting information on the people on trial for, but not convicted of, acts of terrorism, and thereby drawing a more diverse image than the usual stereotypes.

“This is a quite typical story for Inkyfada – a lot of visuals based on a lot of data; 1000 judiciary cases. The story had a significant impact both in Tunisia and abroad especially for people working on the terrorism issue,” says Malek Khadhraoui.

A media within an NGO

Aside from their journalistic approach, which makes Inkyfada quite unique in the Tunisian context, the media differs on another level. It is part of an NGO-structure designed to protect the very independence and quality journalism of Inkyfada.

The NGO is called Al Khatt and was started in 2013 by Malek Khadhraoui and seven other persons who all used to work for the Tunisian blog collective Nawaat.

“The idea from the beginning was to create a media, but also to protect this media from any interference in editorial content, which can happen if you receive grants. So, we created Al Khatt as a structure which ensures the arm’s length principle between Inkyfada and the donors,” Malek Khadhraoui says.

He is currently the president of the NGO, but as this is his second term, a new president will be elected in the spring.

Besides Inkyfada, Al Khatt has two other dimensions: An advocacy aspect which promotes press freedom and defends journalists’ rights to work freely without any oppression; and a web engineering laboratory that provides technical innovation and solutions for both Inkyfada and advocacy purposes.

The words “Al Khatt” translate to ‘the line’ in Arabic and refer to the editorial line of Inkyfada, Malek Khadhraoui explains.

“It is the line of truth and of what we should do. It is also the way to achieve our purpose which is to promote quality journalism in general in Tunisia and to promote and defend freedom of the press.”

Long-life content

Screendump from Inkyfada; a story on immigrants from Westafrica. Click to enlarge.

The editorial team of Inkyfada has recently grown and now counts 11 persons, allowing the team to quadruple their journalistic production from two to eight pieces a month, two of which will be long form.

Because Inkyfada does not publish content every day, their stories often have a longer lifespan than other more timebound news articles. The very first story they did which was an interactive timeline of all the attacks and activities related to terrorism in Tunisia is still relevant and in use, being updated as a sort of online archive.

“This kind of content creates a long-term relationship with readers and generates regular traffic on the website. The map has become very valuable for researchers, other journalists and people who write about Tunisia, who have a habit of visiting the map.”

The stories on Inkyfada are published in both Arabic and French and though the vast majority of readers are from Tunisia and France, also people from the US, Canada and the rest of the MENA-region visit the platform regularly.

In a normal month Inkyfada registers between 70-100.000 visits, but whenever they publish big stories – like Panama Papers, Swiss Leaks or in-depth investigations on Tunisia – the number explodes, and they reach up to 1 million.

Work for the future

Though conditions for media and for civil society organisations have improved since the years of Ben Ali it is still too early to call it a day.

“I do not want to paint a dark picture of the situation but at the same time not being completely optimistic by just saying: ‘Yeah, we are a democracy now and everything is fine’. It is still about fighting for what we have achieved and not going back.”

One issue Inkyfada is dealing with constantly is for instance access to information.

Though the right to information is granted through the constitution it remains difficult either because the state simply withholds certain information, or because civil servants have not been informed on how to reply to such a request. No official explanation exists on how to provide the data, where to find it and in what format it should be delivered.

As a response to this tiresome struggle, Inkyfada has chosen a consistent response. Every time an administration refuses to give them information, Inkyfada sues it.

“It is work for the future – in two years we will have a lot of decisions proving that it is our right to access information. It is a matter of holding the state accountable,” Malek Khadhraoui says.

“The game is open”

But struggling with an administration not yet geared to serve its citizens in the new post-revolution reality is one thing. Fighting the bleak forces who want to downright repeal the advances in Tunisian society, is another.

A leak from a whistle blower has shown that certain powers in parliament wish to re-evaluate and limit the association law, which was changed in 2011 and now protects NGOs and acknowledges their role in society.

Though Malek Khadhraoui indeed sees this as a negative development, he is still confident that civil society has gained enough power and has enough support also in parliament to efficiently fight back.

“The game is open,” as he says.

International Media Support (IMS) partners with Al Khatt through the Danish-Arab Partnership Programme (DAPP) and SIDA and is currently working with them on podcasts which are becoming increasingly popular in the MENA-region. Inkyfada is one of seven digital frontrunners supported by IMS in the MENA region.