Introducing investigative journalism to the Arab world

In 16 years, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, ARIJ, has succeed in building a culture of investitive reporting in a region where free, independent media is under continuous pressure. The culture is established, but work lies ahead to support the ecosystem, says Rawan Damen, executive director.

It started as an idea – maybe even a mirage – and grew to become a downright success.

Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) is not only one of IMS’ biggest achievements, more importantly, it is also one of, if not the most, solid leaps forward in Arab journalism in this century.

ARIJ is the first ever organisation to promote, encourage and teach investigative journalism in the Middle East. It provides training, coaching, mentoring and networking for journalists wanting to do investigative journalism in the Arab world. ARIJ also functions as a publishing platform where journalists can pitch their investigative projects and, if they meet the criteria, receive funding to go through with them. To date, more than 650 investigative projects has been published through ARIJ.

Gradual gains

But success did not come overnight.

“We worked like crazy. But it was alright, because we were doing it for a good cause – the people who start an NGO do not do it for money, they do it for passion,” Rana Sabbagh, the first executive director of ARIJ, recalls. She used to be chief editor of Jordan Times, a position she had been fired from for her dedicated and uncompromising journalism, which did not conform with Jordanian rule.

IMS employees were part of the group that dreamed up and devised ARIJ, sometimes even dubbed “the baby of IMS”, and supported the organisation, with funding as well as brainpower, from the very beginning. On the ground was Rana Sabbagh together with a steadfast group of likeminded, dedicated journalists willing to give their all to see ARIJ succeed.

The first years were rough. Establishing an entity that supports investigative reporting in a region where media freedom was non-existent was no walk in the park. To begin with, the activities were focused on Jordan, Syrian and Lebanon, but gradually ARIJ grew and expanded, first to Egypt, and by 2008, to Bahrain, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen and Tunisia. With the uprisings in 2011, the space for media freedom and independent content opened and ARIJ cemented its pan-Arab status.

Creating a culture from nothing

Rana Sabbagh, who had been synonymous with ARIJ, left the organisation by the end of 2019 to return to doing investigative journalism with OCCRP, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. Today, ARIJ is led by Rawan Damen.

The 42-year-old Jordanian filmmaker and media consultant graduated herself only few years before ARIJ was founded and thus has come of age professionally in parallel with ARIJ.

“ARIJ’s birth came at just the right time. What the organisation succeeded in doing between 2005 and 2011 was really breaking taboos and introducing an investigative journalism methodology in the Arab world, when there was no culture for that,” she says from ARIJ’s headquarters in Amman, Jordan.

With a staff of 30, half of them freelancers, ARIJ remains a relatively small organisation, but, as Rawan Damen says, it “behaves as an empire.” There remains a great demand for ARIJ’s services. For every workshop, 300 people apply, but only 30 are accepted. Due to Covid-19, the entire operation has had to move online, and as this interview with Rawan Damen takes place, two workshops are being taught from behind a screen in adjourning rooms: one on TV investigations and the other on open-source research.

A network across the world

In 16 years, ARIJ has trained more than 3,500 graduates – ARIJeans, they call themselves. They from a tight knit network, a community that is spread out across not only the region, but the entire world, as the wars in Syria and Yemen and harassment in many other countries have forced several journalists to flee their countries of origin.

On the Zoom connection, Rana Sabbagh expresses pride in the generation of investigative reporters ARIJ has helped form.

“I look around and someone that came through ARIJ is there: at the BBC doing digital media, at Deutsche Welle and Al-Jazeera doing investigations. ARIJ introduced something nobody ever dreamed about, something nobody ever understood, and in very difficult circumstances,” she says. She also highlights the ARIJeans filling the editorial rooms of some of the region’s most prominent media outlets – and IMS partners – such as Daraj, Sowt, H7ber and Inkyfada.

“ARIJ has undoubtedly played a major role introducing investigative journalism to the Arab world. Years later, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that some of the best investigative journalism produced in the region is one way or the other related to ARIJ or its graduates,” Alia Ibrahim, co-founder of Daraj, a prominent pan-Arab news site, writes in an email.

With ARIJeans in a number of prime positions, Daraj produces its own investigations and has also collaborated in cross-border investigations, including as part of the media consortium investigating the Pegasus data leak and the Paradise papers.

Supporting the ecosystem

Today, an ARIJ-produced curriculum in investigative journalism is being taught in 70 colleges and universities across the region, and the current generation of journalists in the Arab world is coming of age in a culture where investigative journalism exists.

“ARIJ has established the culture [of investigative journalism, ed.], and now we need to support the ecosystem,” says Rawan Damen on the future focus of ARIJ.

One of the first steps in that regard has been to acknowledge factchecking as an integral part of investigative journalism by establishing the Arab Factcheckers Network that trains and connects factcheckers across the region.

“The expansion of disinformation and misinformation is unbelievable in the Arab world, and here our governments are part of spreading of fake news. We believe factcheckers will be targeted as much as investigative reporters in the future because governments will understand that the debunking of their information will be done by those factcheckers. That is a big problem we are facing,” says Rawan Damen.

IMS continues to support ARIJ through the Danish-Arab Partnership Programme.