As the Arab Spring began to topple a wave of repressive governments six years ago, many members of the fledgling group Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism thought things were finally going to get a little easier in a region where reporters who tried to dig beneath the surface often faced professional and personal danger as well as legal and cultural roadblocks.
“When the Arab Spring happened, we all thought it was going to usher in a new period of openness, and the opposite happened.”
Instead, some of the countries where the organization works have descended into civil war. In others, media censorship laws have become increasingly draconian and access to information more difficult.
In Egypt, an increasing number of journalists have been jailed, including Al Jazeera reporters who were accused in 2013 of supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood group. In Jordan, a reinterpretation of the country’s cyber-crimes law has been used to arrest journalists and social media activists on defamation charges.
“When the Arab Spring happened, we all thought it was going to usher in a new period of openness, and the opposite happened,” said Rana Sabbagh, a Jordanian journalist and the organization’s executive director.
The Jordan-based nonprofit, which was launched with funding from the Danish government in 2005, now trains, mentors and provides legal support to journalists in nine countries, including Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
It has worked with journalists on more than 400 investigations, often under extremely difficult circumstances.
Those have included a probe into abuses in homes for mentally disabled children in Jordan that prompted the country’s king to order an investigation of the allegations, a look at Salafist kindergartens in Tunisia and a dive into the financing of the Muslim Brotherhood. The nonprofit convened a team of journalists to mine the so-called “Panama Papers,” a trove of leaked documents with details on offshore bank accounts and companies, including some belonging to government officials and their families.
The organization also built a database of records from court cases, gazettes and other open-source records throughout the Arab world, and developed a training manual for investigative reporters that is now used widely both in the region and around the world.
Although the group aims to provide journalists with tools to make their work easier, the challenges reporters face in undertaking investigations in the region have, in many ways, multiplied in the Arab Spring backlash, Sabbagh said.
Egyptian video journalist Mostafa el-Marsafawy came face to face with that backlash when he produced a damning investigative report in collaboration with the group. The organization provided him with coaching and legal advice throughout the reporting process.
In early 2014, El-Marsafawy launched what would become a two-year investigation into the treatment of conscripts in the country’s Central Security Forces. More than a dozen young men had died in alleged suicides and accidents. But El-Marsafawy found evidence that suggested some of the men had died at the hands of officers.
One conscript died of an allegedly self-inflicted gunshot wound while in an officer’s room. With the officer present. With the officer’s pistol.
Another allegedly hanged himself in his cell in a military jail where he had been sent for coming back late to camp after attending his cousin’s wedding. A fellow conscript who was on duty the night the young man died testified that he saw three officers holding him on the ground and beating him before he was placed in a solitary cell.
A third young man collapsed from apparent heat exhaustion during training. Another conscript testified that the officer in charge began kicking him and when he did not wake up, beat him to death with a stick.
When he launched the investigation, El-Marsafawy began by contacting family members of the dead conscripts.
“Some of the families refused to talk to me; some gave documents but were afraid to talk,” he said. “Some families took the risk, and they talked to me. They were trying to find out who killed their sons.”
After 10 months of investigation, he finished an initial version of the story. But his employer at the time, the newspaper Al Masry Al Yawm, was unwilling to publish it for fear of reprisals, he said. Other Egyptian outlets were also unwilling to take it.
Finally, he found a home for the piece with BBC and continued the reporting and fact-checking process for more than a year until the story was finished.
As soon as the Arabic version of the report aired, in March 2016, it came under “heavy attack” on social media and government-sponsored talk shows, the ARIJ’s Sabbagh said. “We were blasted as being part of a movement to destabilize Egypt.”
“In Egypt, there are a lot of stories we need to work on, but a lot of journalists, they are afraid.”
Within days, his newspaper fired El-Marsafawy. After looking unsuccessfully for work in Egypt, he relocated to Jordan, where he now works for ARIJ training journalists to do video investigations.
El-Marsafawy said he doesn’t regret the project.
“I knew that there would be some bad things that could happen after the broadcast, but ARIJ was with me, and I took the decision that I would do it,” he said.
The results make it worth it, he said.
Soon after the Arabic version of the story aired, the officer involved in the beating case was sentenced to three years in prison, after lengthy court delays. El-Marsafawy said he heard from some recruits that conditions had improved in the camps. And for the families of some of the dead soldiers, the investigation came as a form of vindication.
Suicide is forbidden in Islam, so many of the families had been dealing with shame along with the pain of losing a loved one. Now, El-Marsafawy said, families told him they were happy that “something official on the TV said their soldiers were not suicides.”
But it may be more difficult for reporters to look into similar abuses in the future. A change in the law means that now all cases involving conscript deaths will be heard in closed military courts.
And many reporters and editors are shying away from doing stories that could get them fired or jailed, El-Marsafawy said.
“In Egypt, there are a lot of stories we need to work on, but a lot of journalists, they are afraid,” he said.
ARIJ is also looked on with suspicion in the country now, Sabbagh said, making it difficult to find media partners or hold training sessions for Egyptian journalists. Sabbagh said some journalists take vacation time to attend the organization’s annual conference and training sessions in Jordan, without telling their bosses.
Since ARIJ was formed, a number of other investigative reporting organizations have sprung up in the region, and Sabbagh said her group is aiming to find ways to support them.
“If you were to look back 10 years from now and document the beginning of a real movement called Arab investigative journalism, I think ARIJ will get a lot of credit,” she said. “It’s a miracle that we are here and that we keep going.
“Really, there is so much to be happy about, but we have such a long way to go.”