Looking at ‘Investigative Journalism in the Arab World’

Sunday 07/05/2017
Cover of Saba Bebawi’s book, “Investigative Journalism in the Arab World: Issues and Challenges.”

Investigative journalism in the Arab world needs reform, especially with the newfound freedoms the media has secured after the “Arab spring.” This is one of the main points of Saba Bebawi’s new book, “Investigative Journal­ism in the Arab World: Issues and Challenges.”

Bebawi’s book is based on her experiences working for Radio Jordan English, CNN and Dubai TV. When she addresses hindrances to such reform, it comes from time spent on the front lines of the media’s battles for access to information.

Bebawi’s book deals with the is­sues and challenges facing investi­gative reporting in the Arab world in great depth. She provides illu­minating case studies, such as how job advertisements in Jordanian newspapers lure women for sexual purposes, as well as the story of a Syrian refugee trying to regain her daughter’s identity documents from Jordanian authorities, whom she accused of trying to make money out of refugees.

Although finding funding for investigative journalism is a problem everywhere it is of particular concern in the arab world. Bebawi makes the case that arab media should make more of an effort to find sponsors to fund costly investigative projects, similar to what propublica does in the united states.

Saad hattar, an editorial consultant for arab reporters for investigative journalism (arij), a non-profit organi­sation established in 2005 to promote investigative journalism, said in the book that the arab world lacked sustainable journalism training for students living in the internet age, and that current university courses were “stagnant and old.”

Bebawi pointed out that while large media operations such as al jazeera and al arabiya have budgets to launch training ventures and long-term projects, newsrooms on state and local levels need financial aid to break from the traditional report­ing cycle. She said that when young journalists receive training in inves­tigative reporting, old-school editors rarely allow them the opportunity to implement their skills.

Another problem in arab media, bebawi said, is journal­ists’ inability to distinguish between truth-telling and activist-driven writing that is based in political opinions and emotion. This point is stressed by training coaches at arij, who said arab journalists tend to base an investigation on hearsay rather than evidence.

Access to information in the arab world is also a problem, with state media often functioning as government mouthpiec­es. News archives are limited and laws on free­dom of information are sometimes restricted.

However, arij executive direc­tor rana sabbagh notes in bebawi’s book that the “arab spring” “broke the wall of fear” and the media became polarised, either supporting or opposing various regimes. This posed a problem for new independ­ent media, which found hardly any space to provide alternative coverage of events.

Sabbagh said she noticed that students often graduated without knowing the difference between investigative journalism and daily reporting. Her organisa­tion invited professors to its annual conference but learned they were resistant to teaching investigative reporting methods. Many of the professors taught in gov­ernment-owned institutions and said they would be unable to protect their students in their probing as they were not professionals.

Hattar also explained that online platforms, such as social media, pose a threat to the gov­ernment since state institutions cannot control them. This has created a turbulent environment, Bebawi said, with some platforms sometimes being shut down overnight, making it harder to do investigative reporting.