Can Investigative Journalism Flourish in the Arab World?

No democracy can flourish without an independent, professional media monitoring the powers that be, and for countries transitioning to democracy, this is particularly true. But in the Arab world, where millions are demanding more transparent, accountable government, media remains heavily restricted as the authorities—both the old and the new—vie for power.

Take Tunisia, the only Arab Spring country to have fully completed a successful democratic transition. On the surface, it’s a progressive society with a new constitution that guarantees the right of access to information. In practice, however, the government has failed to follow through on this promise: there are no mechanisms to enforce implementation of this decree, so most requests for information have gone unanswered.

Government operations are entrenched in a culture of secrecy, and independent media is professionally weak. Media’s weakness also stems from a lack of proper funding. Coverage of the most recent elections was notably polarized, demonstrating how easily media can fall into the financial grip of political parties and interest groups.

But government isn’t the only obstacle. Arab society poses its own challenge. In much of the Arab world, societal norms don’t promote a culture of debate. Important issues are frequently swept under the rug rather than confronted openly. For this reason, support for professional journalism is often tepid, and resistance from the people who would benefit most from it can be more oppressive than resistance from the government. This makes breaking through a challenge, but experience has shown that if anyone can disrupt this status quo, it’s investigative journalists themselves.

Case in point: in Jordan, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) launched an investigation into a loophole in the Jordanian penal code that allowed rapists to avoid punishment by marrying their victims. The investigation found that rapists often stayed in these marriages for only one month of the required five years. Thus, the victim, often now with child, was denied legal protections or access to support mechanisms while the rapist escaped any meaningful punishment.

The ARIJ investigation rallied public attention around this delicate and rarely discussed issue. After publishing the story, we were contacted by the local branch of the International Women’s Forum, which convened a meeting to discuss the findings of the investigation and next steps. The meeting was attended by legal experts, public opinion shapers, and women members of parliament. Momentum grew, and now the Jordanian government is in talks about reforming the law. This is but one small example of the power of investigative journalism.

Since 2005, ARIJ has supported investigations like this across the region through funding and coaching. Our thorough training program for investigative reporting has helped over a thousand journalists. From the moment they pitch us their story ideas, we support them through the entire reporting process, from developing an initial strategy to fielding inquiries post-publication.

Recently, we also started integrating faculty from university journalism programs, and developed a three-hour-credit curriculum that is now being taught at five Arab universities. Some of these, like Lebanese American University, have offered the course for three semesters in a row. In Tunis, with the help of ARIJ and in collaboration with the State University of New York, the first master’s program in investigative reporting in the Arab region was launched.

The future of investigative journalism depends on our ability to create a critical mass of investigators. Just 10 good investigators are enough to make an impact in any country. They become role models for other journalists, and a force for bringing social issues to the foreground in societies where people have no voice, dignity, or justice.

ARIJ is helping to foster this change, but it’s a slow process. As they say in the Arab world, we are not planting tomatoes, we are planting olive trees. It takes time, but once the tree has taken root, it will stand for years to come.

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The fourth estate is critical to a growing democracy. In Iraq world journalists have participated in the first round of US IRAQI Youth Institute's program The Mission of Truth. Some of the results can be found through links at USIYI twitter.

we hope that the open society and other international organizations would help train more journalists,human rights activists to establish websites to support democratic ideas as every one knows that without freedom of speech and writing there never be democracy in the Arab World

This is an excellent article. Without an independent "fourth estate," democracy cannot thrive. While it takes much courage to publish the truth in a repressive society, truth is a necessity.

A free press is one of the pillars of freedom in this country as indeed in any democratic society. Journalism is not meant to make the environment cozy for leaders or to cause them sleepless night rather it prods them to act in the interest of the larger society. Their role in the maintenance of democracy is to contribute to the exchange of ideas already alluded to. It must advance communication between the governed and those who govern. Even though it plays an essential role in the democratic process, it must not overstep certain bounds, in particular respect to the reputation and rights of others. Its impact should be in a manner consistent with its obligation and responsibilities.

The press is obliged to freely uphold the responsibility and accountability of government to the people. The press has the inalienable right to disseminate information to members of the public, or a right that must not be whittled down by legal or linguistic refinements. (See Akomolafe v Guardian Newspaper (2004) 1 NWLR pt. 853, p.1 @16 para D-E; Gomes v Punch (1999) 5 NWLR (pt. 602) 303).

Latching on the press for conscienable data is skewed because almost all information is advert. It is this deficit that encourages the ouster of publication. This is made manifest each time the peoples’ collective interest is threatened by the interest of a few elites.

A defence of qualified privilege avails the press in disclosing official secrets; the press has the duty to give information in question and a corresponding interest in the general listening public to receive it (N.T.A v Bamgbose (1996) 4 NWLR pt. 440). The social responsibility of the media is a fact which is judicially noticed. (Makinde v Omaghomi (2011) 5 NWLR pt. 1240, p. 249 @ 267 paras B-C). In this regard the press needs no justiceability provision, but rather courage without interference.( See Adikwu & Ors v Federal House of Representatives & Ors (1982)3 NCLR

I am having an especially difficult time understanding issues related to democracy in other countries when my experience as a US citizen for the past four years has been a chronic barrage of human rights violations consisting of terror psychology, misrepresented and toxic medication violations beginning with essential drug shortages with-out warning or notice, fear inducing propaganda, power-over mentality, and my voting rights mysteriously vanishing. There is a silent war against poor and disabled persons with non profit agencies being told not to help us as to make us more "resilient". I am continuously sickened by the vile and harmful acts of cruelty, injustice, lies and ignorance I have both witnessed and endured. A technological Holocaust is waging war under the guise of "transparency" , openness, and game theory, yet only those educated and healthy-enough, with the means and ability to relax and crack codes will be entertained and have their passion persist.

Thank you very much for thinking about the investigative reporting wich is one of the grantees of the succes of democracy in the arab word.

I'm a tunisian journalist. Can you give me more information about the master program launched with the State University of New York.

Investigative reporting Is essential for those that lives in hardship and hard context. No one lose anything besides ignorance, in share good information with people, facts matter to people and have to reach everyone, at least. Furthermore, after media provide good and open information, as much as possible, People needs voice after get its own and clear opinion about themselves and the World that they live in.

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