Investigative journalism is alive and snooping in the Middle East

“Investigative journalists are like the dead rat that was brought to the party. No one likes us.” A colorful, throwaway quote from Seymour Hersh, the world’s most famous investigative journalist, speaking at this year’s Arab Media Forum in Dubai. And in the Middle East he could well be right; the region is hardly revered for its freedom of expression.
Rania Habib - Kippreport
Suspicious minds, Part I & Part II. © Rania Habib / Kippreport

The 2008 Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RWB) shows that, in a report spanning 173 countries, most in this region ranked outside the top 100 in terms of press freedom. Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Iran are among those countries that recorded low press freedom scores, with most of them moving down the rankings from their 2007 positions. Only Lebanon, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates ranked in the top 100, with the first four even moving up in comparison to the previous year.

That doesn’t mean these countries are at the vanguard of free speech. This summer UAE-based Arabic daily newspaper Al Emarat Al Youm’s print and online versions were suspended for 20 days and the editor was fined AED20,000 for publishing an article in 2006 about the doping of a racehorse owned by the country’s ruling family. The paper was accused of “deliberately publishing false and inappropriate information.” RWB issued a statement saying that the ruling “poses a threat to the independence of investigative media in the United Arab Emirates,” and that the sentence was “disproportionate and liable to intimidate media, which will assume that they could also be suspended or fined if they publish articles that displease those in positions of influence.”

In 2008, Egyptian private company Trust Chemical Industries sued Egyptian blogger Tamer Mabrouk over a blog entry accusing the company of dumping hazardous waste in a lake and the Suez Canal. A Port Said court fined Mabrouk, who was also fired from his job at the chemical company, 45,000 Egyptian pounds (around $8,000). RWB stated that, “The fine that has been imposed is an insult to free expression.”

Egyptian ruins. Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for the UK daily paper The Independent, says the only investigative journalism undertaken in Egypt is carried out by leftist newspapers. They are often closed down, and are staffed by editors and journalists who are regularly threatened and put in prison.

“Many news agencies have invested hugely in offices around the world,” says Fisk, who has won numerous awards over more than 30 years of journalism. “Let’s take Cairo for example. When was the last time you saw a Western agency in Cairo investigating torture by the Egyptian police? They don’t. So many people in the agency work for the mukhabarat (intelligence) that they can’t. And if they did investigate, the Egyptian government would threaten to close their bureau, which is worth millions and millions. So what you’ll find is, if there are accusations of torture in Egypt, Reuters for example will quote Amnesty International in London as saying there is torture, but Egyptian authorities will deny it.”

“It’s a strange situation,” he continues. “Western organizations are so deeply embedded in the Arab world, they are so financially invested, that they cannot question the government, so the whole purpose of having a bureau there in the first place disappears.”

Fisk says that in Egypt - and throughout the Middle East in general - investigative journalism is stigmatized and automatically becomes subversive, because a lot of problems in the region turn out to have a political background. “In Britain, when we investigate the government, we don’t want to overthrow the regime, we just want to know,” he says. “If [Arab journalists] do what I do, it appears like a lack of patriotism.”

Yosri Fouda, the former chief investigative correspondent and executive producer at

Al Jazeera television news station, says that while there has been progress in the state of investigative journalism in the Middle East over the past decade, there remains a lack of appreciation for the job and its role for several reasons.

One of the main obstacles, Fouda says, is societal; regional culture is largely oral. “This doesn’t help with investigative journalism,” he says. “We don’t really like figures and statistics. We are moved rather by rhythm and tunes and poetry; that doesn’t exactly help those who are supposed to be after facts, sorting facts out of speculations and rumors. Another challenge is how to present facts in an attractive way, which will engage the audience. It’s a sad statistic, but more than half of Arabs can’t read or write. One of the early challenges for me was writing my script, because I didn’t know who I was writing to. Am I writing to a peasant who lives on the delta in Egypt, or a sheikh in Yemen, or the Syrian emigrant who is now a professor at Harvard?”

Problems also exist within the media itself, says Fouda. Far too many editors or owners of media outlets do not understand or do not appreciate investigative journalism, or they are unwilling to spend a decent budget and give time to their staff to embark on investigative reports. “In addition, another question is whether the journalists themselves are interested in taking the rather difficult route of establishing themselves and paying the price of building their credibility brick by brick, taking the time to investigate the story, and having the passion to start with.”

Lie society. Rana Sabbagh Gargour, former chief editor of The Jordan Times, is now an independent journalist and the founder of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), a regional network that supports independent journalism. She says that the challenges from society are actually now more restrictive than any lack of governmental transparency.

“People have given up on political corruption,” she says. “They are more worried about daily living standards, jobs, and education. With stories about sexual abuse, for example, people attacked us saying that we were creating stories, that theirs is a clean and religious society and those things could not happen.”

It’s a situation Fisk can well understand. He says problems like this are universal.

“Unfortunately, [journalists] have become a kind of trumpet, or an echo chamber for government spokesmen, in which we don’t actually channel their statements through our own critical faculties,” he says. “We don’t actually investigate, we don’t ask the question, ‘Why?’”

Al Jazeera is one outlet that Fisk clearly believes is asking why. He credits the 13-year-old network with transforming coverage of the Middle East. He recalls a quote from Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who upon visiting the Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha, said, “You mean this little matchbox is causing all of my problems?”

Fisk also recalls speaking to an Al Jazeera senior editor who was with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair while he visited the Al Jazeera offices. Blair was asked if George W. Bush truly did want to bomb the network’s building in Doha, and he dodged the question. But Fisk is in no doubt.

“Of course Bush wanted to bomb Al Jazeera, because he didn’t want it to investigate,” he says. “You have two problems in the Middle East: regional governments, and then you have us [the West]. Neither wants you to investigate.”

Fouda says there is another challenging element of investigative journalism common across the world: accessing information and getting people to speak to you. “Investigative journalism is always difficult, because you’re usually after the kind of information that sources are reluctant to give to you,” he says. “I’ve found that almost every single investigation I’ve embarked on has been very difficult, particularly when dealing with the US. If it’s not difficult, then you’re probably not doing the right story. I haven’t heard of a true scoop without repercussions; one party or the other will be affected negatively or positively by your story. What matters is that you know your truth, you know the law, you calculate the risks, and off you go. That doesn’t mean that you’re 100 percent sure that everything will be okay, but that’s the nature of the beast. Investigative journalists do enjoy the pleasure of surprise.”

Youthful enthusiasm. Fisk says Lebanon (where he has been based for more than 30 years) is the only country in the Middle East making great strides in the advancement of investigative journalism, especially after the Syrian forces retreated from the country.

“I suppose this is a cliché, but one can always tell a country by its youth,” he says. “Since the end of the civil war, there’s been this great infusion of young people, who were sent away to the West by their parents, probably for safety reasons, who returned to Lebanon with this belief in secularism and having a free society. They could breathe, they could say what they wanted, they could write what they wanted, and read anything that they wanted.”

So, while the overall state of investigative journalism in the Middle East still appears grim, there are beacons of hope as well. Fouda says that, in addition to the changes in Lebanon, editors elsewhere in the region are much more aware of the need to invest in this line of journalism, and there is a new generation of young journalists who are passionate about it too.

Even audiences, now that they have been exposed to investigative journalism, would miss it if it were no longer here. Once upon a time they wouldn’t have even known about it. “That propels me to think that the situation now is much better,” he says confidently.

His hopes are tinged with realism, though. “It’s by no means perfect,” he concludes. “And we have a very long way to go to begin really establishing Arab investigative journalism.”

First seen in Communicate magazine. Suspicious minds, Part I & Part II