How to practise investigative journalism in the Arab region


Exposing the truth and bringing accountability in the changing Arab region today have never been more important. Yet, while investigative journalism is gaining more attention in the Arab media scene, it still remains a rare journalistic genre.

The Amman-based Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) describes itself as “the first and only initiative of its kind” in the region, dedicated to promoting quality professional investigative journalism in newsrooms in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Bahrain, Palestine, Yemen and Tunisia.

ARIJ’s Executive Director Rana Sabbagh is a Jordanian journalist, columnist and media trainer with 28 years of experience in print journalism. The former Chief Editor of the Jordan Times (1999-2001) is also a regular columnist for the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat.

Sabbagh shares her insights into the practice of investigative reporting by Arab journalists.

Rana Sabbagh (left), photo credit: Mahmood AlYousif via Flickr (some rights reserved)

What role does investigative journalism play in the Arab media scene today?

RS: There is no investigative journalism in the Arab media scene, this is why we are here. Before ARIJ was founded in 2005, most journalists didn’t know about this type of reporting. There is now more awareness in the region, but we don’t see any investigative journalism practised in the media.

In the early phase of ARIJ, we produced investigative reports on socio-economic issues such as education, environment and small corruption. Since the Arab Spring, there is a tendency to investigate political corruption, money laundering, and organised crime, especially in Egypt.

Right now, I am encouraging journalists to document stories about topics that were not explored during the Egyptian revolution, namely the killings, cases of torture and rape.

What hands-on tips can you give Arab reporters who want to practise investigative journalism?

RS: I advise them to be well-versed in computer technology and proficient in at least one foreign language, preferably English. Nearly all the journalists we work with speak Arabic only, so we have started running English language classes at ARIJ. 

Investigative journalists need to have a lot of legal training, learn how to apply the hypothesis-based inquiry methodology, and ensure that their story is viable, fact-evidenced, well-resourced. This should enable them to challenge assumptions and draw conclusions from various arguments.

What makes a distinguished investigative reporter is a good flair for news, the ability to detect stories that will become big topics and to do the follow up. An investigative reporter needs to be dedicated, prepared to work hard and discuss a big subject extensively in order to be able to produce professional quality content.

It’s very important for investigative reporters to do the interviews in person. Unfortunately, many journalists rely on the Internet, e-mails, and don’t meet people. Instead, they should show initiative, leave the office and speak to people. 

I tell journalists to doubt what they are told and always look behind the story and do the necessary research. It’s also important to keep sources confidential, protect the identity of the people involved in a story.

At ARIJ, journalists are required to compile a progress report where they indicate the investigative method they have decided to adopt, what problems they encounter, how they solve these problems, which sources they use. Journalists need to be organised in managing their investigations, keep a record of every interview. More generally, they should think in a systematic way and document every data and figures obtained, check the collected information, compare sources, and build up their database.

ARIJ’s Fourth Annual Conference for Investigative Journalists (2-4 Dec, 2011)

What are the latest media tools and techniques available for Arab investigative journalists?

RS: At ARIJ, we teach our journalists how to apply advanced Google searching techniques for tracking information. They learn how to make use of free websites and online databases to dig accurate information, gain access to public records, and locate documents.

We provide training on the application of Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR) tools which enable today’s multimedia tasked journalists to use and manage data effectively. In addition, ARIJ has developed a digital file that helps journalists to plan and keep track of their own investigations. 

Cross-border networking is also very effective for investigations. Journalists engage with colleagues based in other countries through sharing files, accessing data, chat rooms, checking accuracy of documents retrieved, following facts across borders.

Last December, ARIJ published its first cross-border investigation, carried out by two journalists from the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, who tracked the wealth of Egyptian oil and gas tycoon Hussein Salem, the right-hand of former president Hosni Mubarak.

We have recently learned about an electronic dashboard, a revolutionary device designed by Paul Radu, Executive Director of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). It is a digital space that allows journalists to access electronically databases and company files, extract information and find resources. The dashboard was key to our first cross-border investigation.

Over the coming year, we will be running an introduction to the investigative dashboard and the advanced dashboard search. We are going to diffuse knowledge and practice of the dashboard across the Arab region. We will also instruct journalists in advanced cross-border networking techniques.

Over the next 3 years, we will be focusing on multimedia. We will continue to train journalists in applying multimedia tools to enhance the effect of their investigations, by using web and iPhone applications.

We will promote new platforms for research, and encourage more journalists to conduct investigations via Lexis-Nexis and other web databases, and to dig deeper into stories.

We have another project called ‘Hack the Hackers’ that will help to protect sensitive digital sources. 

ARIJ Training Workshop: Principles of Investigative Journalism

What are other existing resources for investigative journalists in the Arab region?

RS: The best resource is ARIJ’s manual ‘Story-Based Inquiry’, a guide to basic methods and techniques of investigative journalism. It is our ‘Bible’ for trainers, coaches, and journalists and it has been translated into nine languages. There is hardly any literature around the world, let alone in the Arab world, and this manual offers a unified methodology that anyone conducting investigations can refer to.

There is a common assumption that the main issue for a reporter is finding information. Instead, the guidebook has a systematic approach called ‘hypothesis-based inquiry’, meaning that a story is only a hypothesis until it is verified.

We are currently working with university professors to introduce the manual to undergraduate students. We see the manual as a learning kit for Arab journalists. It is our most successful product.

What impact do you think the growing use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter has on investigative journalism?

RS: They are all good tools that investigative journalists should use for reference only. One investigative tool that can be useful and improve data collection is crowd-sourcing via Facebook or blogs. Journalists can make an open call to a large group of people in order to obtain comments and tips, or ask for specific help.

At ARIJ, we recently signposted an Egyptian journalist who wants to write about missing Egyptians during the revolution, on a Facebook page with an interest in the same topic in order to help him gather more data and receive tips. 

ARIJ Training Workshop: Computer Assisted Reporting

What other media networks, platforms or initiatives are helping to promote investigative reporting in the region?

RS: There are few scattered initiatives in the region. In Iraq, there is now a national forum for journalists, mainly run by Kurds and Shi’ites. In Morocco, there is the ‘Moroccan Association for Investigative Journalists’ (AMJI). Right now, I’m trying to encourage a group of outstanding journalists from Al-Masry Al-Youm and the Press Association in Egypt to set up an Egyptian network for investigative journalists.

This being said, ARIJ remains the only centre with a unique offer of training, media coaching, funding, technical and legal assistance. Within three years, we are going to have at least 12 investigative units in the established media. Ideally, ARIJ aspires to become an umbrella for national investigative projects in the Arab region.