Clara Zid, October 2022

Rawan Damen

A lot of investigative journalists and fact checkers from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) publish anonymously, as journalists face a lot of challenges, including death-threats. The Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) Foundation is a light in the darkness in the region.

Rawan Damen, filmmaker and media consultant, is the Director General of ARIJ since January 2020. Her curricula is impressive: she has 25 years of experience in TV and digital storytelling and stands behind tens of award-winning TV documentaries and investigations in the Arab World. She was also a senior editor at Al Jazeera for 10 years where she commissioned more than 250 documentaries from all the Arab world.

During the three years as ARIJ’s Director General, Rawan has doubled the team and the budget of the foundation, has opened a platform for fact-checkers and another for whistleblowers. During the Covid pandemic she led the publication of more than 100 investigations with tens of award-winning reports. ARIJ launched iARIJ, the first Arabic language whistleblowers platform to encourage whistleblowers to come forward.

How do you do investigative journalism in a region where free press does not exist?

When ARIJ started in 2006 there were a few investigations, but there was no culture of investigations. Now this culture exists but with a lot of challenges: most of our investigative journalists and even fact-checkers publish under aliases. After the pandemic the access to information and freedom of expression is even worse than before.

How can investigative journalists work under such circumstances?

The challenges we face do not mean that we cannot produce investigations, it is just more challenging. We need to rely more on open source data, data investigations and we need to do a lot of anonymous work and carefully look after ourselves. Investigations do not stop when there’s no access to information and suppression of freedom of expression – on the contrary – the exposure of the wrong doing is more important when it is really difficult.

Have you suffered reprisals for your commitment to investigative journalism?

All the time. Those in power, whether it is politicians or business people behind the wrong doing, they always want to hide it and exposing their actions generates a problem for them. So our journalists and fact checkers face a lot of challenges in the field, working on investigations in countries like Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Palestine is very challenging. They always face problems.

“Those in power always want to intimidate us”

And ARIJ suffers reprisals too?

ARIJ as an institution faces some legal cases trying to intimidate us, but we are a very fact-checked organization. Everything we publish is fully fact-checked and legally screened. Those in power always want to intimidate us. Our journalists face other threats; some of them, from Yemen, Syria and Iraq, receive death-threats. We always need to have a safety and risk assessment in place so we can protect our journalists.

What was your objective when accepting to be the Director General of ARIJ?

I knew ARIJ from before as a training institute for investigative journalism, and I felt that there was a community worth working with. During its 15 years in operation, ARIJ had built a strong community of investigative journalists from the Middle East and North Africa. Now ARIJ expanded and is supporting three kind of ecosystems of investigative journalism: investigative journalists, fact-checkers and whistleblowers.

You have led ARIJ to become the largest Arab partner of large investigations like Pandora Papers.

We enjoyed very much working with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), which we led Paradise Papers, the Panama Papers, FinCEN and finally Pandora. With FinCEN files and then Pandora Papers it was an excellent experience for Arab journalists to collaborate with hundreds of journalists from all around the world. We worked for 18 months on Pandora Papers and we at ARIJ covered six Arab countries with stories, cross border collaboration and networking with journalists from other regions.

“The future of investigative journalism is cross border collaboration, no longer can one single journalist do an impressive investigation alone.”

Was the publication of the Pandora Papers safe for you?

To publish the Pandora Papers at the same date and time as the other journalists around the world gave us a lot of visibility and we reached a much wider audience than normal, but it also gave us a sense of safety because we were publishing together with more than 600 different newsrooms and institutions. We learned a lot from working with journalists from the States, Canada, and Europe because they introduced us to both new methodologies and advanced tools that we were not familiar with.

The future of investigative journalism is cross border collaboration, no longer can one single journalist do an impressive investigation alone.

Another new ARIJ development is the Arab Fact-Checkers Network (AFCN).

We started 15 years ago with the “pre-publication fact-checking” and supporting fact-checkers in the region. Now, with the global trend of disinformation/misinformation and malinformation, we have done a qualitative and quantitative study where we have documented more than 500 new different initiatives, organizations, and groups that focus post publications on fact-checking. From combining both pre- and post-publication efforts, the idea of AFCN was born to include organizations, initiatives and freelances in one community.

What is your vision for AFCN?

The idea is that this new network will support fact-checked content including investigative stories and support with empowering and networking a community of fact-checkers in the region. Currently the network consists of around 30 different organizations and initiatives from 12+ Arab countries, which constitute of around 250 fact-checkers – many of them freelances who work on fact-checking content mainly on social media. AFCN focus also on safety efforts and strategic talks with social media platforms, media platforms and communication universities.

What kind of services does ARIJ offer to journalists?

ARIJ is a training institute, we are not a publishing platform. It works in the following way: a journalist pitches an idea to us, during or outside of the trainings, and if ARIJ accepts the pitch, we provide the journalist with a personal coach that works with the journalist during months until the story is ready to publish/broadcast. The journalist is offered training in all investigative work from hypothesis to research and from field work to sources interviews, in addition to reporting, writing, filming, etc. If the journalist does not have a publishing platform, ARIJ finds them suitable platforms in Arabic, English or any other European language, depending on the angle of the story. Prior to publishing, each story is fully fact checked by cold eyes and legally screened. ARIJ also offers safety trainings during this process in five pillars: physical safety, digital safety, mental safety, legal safety and career safety.

Career safety, what is that?

We recently added career safety to our training curricula which means that we help investigative journalists to build their career. More and more investigative journalists are leaving the domain because the work is both risky and they publish without a byline. Financially they need to sustain their family and many of them become freelances. We are helping them to find a career path so they can continue working in this domain.

Which service is more demanded?

The demand differs between countries, and is different for junior and senior journalists and fact checkers. Generally there is a high demand for physical, digital and career safety trainings. Plus, there is a high demand on our 6 months Data Diploma. Last time 600 competed for 20 seats.

ARIJ-produced curriculum in investigative journalism is being taught in 70 colleges and universities across the region. How is it working?

This idea started more than 10 years ago. Professor Mark Hunter helped to build a curricula on investigative journalism. It was the first Arabic language curriculum in investigative journalism. ARIJ trained and continue to train professors and lecturers so they could teach the curricula to their students.

In some countries, the word “investigative journalism” is problematic and the administration of some Universities simply change it to “in-depth reporting” or “quality journalism” to be able to teach the curricula.

Rawan Damen

ARIJ organized its annual investigative conference in December.

We were very excited because it was our 15th annual conference, so it is a big number for us. We had 570 in person (from 40+ countries) and 2500+ online (from 50+ countries). The theme of this year was “Defending independent media”, focusing on the challenges independent media face. We had 30 sessions in 3 days, in addition to 9 in-person pre-forum advanced workshops.

Not all investigative journalists can attend the event in person as they don’t have valid travel documents. In some cases the authorities don’t allow some investigative journalists to have a passport because of their work. Some female investigative journalists are not able to travel for social reasons. For that reason, the event is available online as well, and they can attend and listen to all the panels and discussions for free. And we would like to continue having it hybrid with full translation into English and sign language.

Leading a pan-Arabic media organization as a woman might have its challenges. What has been your experience so far as a woman in a male dominant environment?

It wasn’t easy. I’ve been in this career for 25 years and in Jordan we have the lowest percentage of women working in the whole region. So the number of women leading media organizations is not high in Jordan and in the region. As a woman you need to work three times more than your male colleagues to achieve the same thing. As a woman if you do a mistake everybody will say it is because you are a woman in the male dominant field. So I needed to work much more, more time and with higher quality. I never regretted this because I am so happy that I became a role model to other female journalists! It’s not easy even after 25 years, but if I could travel back in time, I would choose media again.

What future do you envision for ARIJ?

I hope that ARIJ can continue to contribute to the accountability in this region and to the advancement of human rights empowerment. It’s very very difficult to anticipate the future in this region because things are really in a transition politically, economically and socially. Also, the whole global situation is changing between USA, Russia and China, and Middle East is somehow forgotten. I am worried that the coming years for ARIJ will be very difficult. Not because of ARIJ’s direct work but because of the situation in this region. I hope that ARIJ will be able to survive and push accountability, forward and combat mis/disinformation in this region and to get Arab journalists the chance to work together cross border the Arab world, but also internationally.

ARIJ and iARIJ are hosted by Virtualroad.org since 2021.