Arab investigative reporters: Life on the edge

From Amman: Whichever Saudi official gave the order to assassinate and dismember Jamal Khashoggi, they must have believed they would get away with it.

This killing was no suicide mission.

The 15-strong team of assassins didn’t slip unnoticed into Turkey. Rather, they left a series of clear footprints throughout their brief stay in Istanbul.

They were brazen and self-assured — an indication that they had killed before. This was their trade.

We can only speculate on the identity of their previous victims.

There are several reasons why the Saudis expected to walk away unscathed from this murder — and one of them concerns my trade, the press.

When admission of the killing finally came, journalists throughout much of the Arab region sprang to Riyadh’s defense. They wrote whatever they were told to write. Each time the official story changed, they altered their own to accommodate it, without shame or hesitation.

Whatever the Saudi state had to say was, without question, good enough for them.

And they weren’t alone. The Saudis had a second line of defense: a smaller but no less influential band of western journalists, who had spent a year or more telling the story of a newly packaged, reformist Saudi Arabia, and of winds of change blowing across the desert, its eye-watering visions and ambitions lauded across the world.

All too ready to praise the kingdom’s so-called reforms, foreign reporters largely ignored the renewed and brutal crackdown on dissent taking place in Saudi Arabia, which included the jailing of women activists who had campaigned to be allowed to drive, the ruthless onslaught against civilians in Yemen and the Saudi coalition’s secret torture chambers.

You had to read the reports from international human rights organizations to find out what regional journalists — and some of their western colleagues — repeatedly failed to highlight.

With so many journalists determined to look the other way, there can be little wonder that whoever ordered Khashoggi’s killing believed that he too would get a free pass.

Why would journalists care about a single death in Istanbul, when they had systematically ignored thousands of deaths in Yemen and elsewhere? It was a safe bet that they wouldn’t.

We in the media are also, therefore, to blame for that order to kill. That shameful act and decades of checkbook diplomacy have allowed Riyadh to secure allies and silence media criticism. This belongs to us as well.

Every time we look away and fail to question and investigate, we are helping to decide the fate of another unfortunate victim. We are willingly disgracing our profession.

Who remembers the torture and murder of the Italian student Giulio Regeni in Cairo in 2016 and the string of contradictory explanations from the Egyptian authorities and their loyal media?

Who has investigated and held the perpetrators accountable?

Not us.

Who will be next?

We know that journalism is not easy anywhere in the world today, even in the United States, once seen by some as a beacon for free speech and democracy until the advent of President Donald Trump. But nowhere compares with the Middle East for lack of press freedom and the constant danger in which reporters operate.

In the seven years since the Arab Spring, hope has given way to deep disappointment. As a Jordanian citizen, I have faced the regression of civil and political rights; as a journalist, I now operate under unprecedented state pressure.

These years also have also been the most difficult in the life of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), as respective governments in the region have continued to introduce new, ominous measures: to withhold information, to censor or force media into self-censorship, to threaten, to imprison, and now even to kill.

Today, Arab officials break the law with impunity, secure in the knowledge that there is little accountability in their own countries and often an intentionally blind eye in the west. The US and Europe are more concerned about securing lucrative business deals with the region, combating militancy and deterring the influx of refugees. The public are no help either. There is little demand for investigative reports about bad government and corrupt practices. They largely prefer cat videos and music.

The choices for Arab journalists are stark and unenviable: to be pro or anti-regime, to work for the government or against it.

ARIJ believes that the media should never accept this ultimatum. Our role is to act as watchdogs in society, calling attention to failing processes and demanding solutions, uncovering injustice and exploring hardship, speaking up for the helpless and the hopeless, and ultimately, holding the corrupt and incompetent accountable.

Amid today’s era of stark political polarization, the press is largely viewed as a destabilizing force and a source of discord across the region. In fairness, professional standards and ethics have deteriorated and we lack serious self-regulation. But that doesn’t excuse the obstacles and repression our reporters encounter daily.

Egypt, a country where ARIJ has worked with more than 100 journalists, has become what Amnesty International describes as an “open-air prison for critics.” The crackdown on independent political, social and cultural spaces, including the media scene, is more “extreme than anything seen in former President Hosni Mubarak’s repressive 30-year-rule,” according to a September press release by the international rights group.

In Sanaa, Houthi rebels control all media houses. Journalists are often threatened, attacked or abducted.

The Saudis, Qataris and the Emiratis have invested heavily in regional TV stations and pan-Arab newspapers, which now function like PR machines.

Syria has never had a free press. But now it has become one of the world’s deadliest country for journalists, who are caught between the regime and its allies, as well as armed opposition groups, including the Kurds and the Islamic State.

Even in Jordan, the darling of the west, journalists must be affiliated with the tight-knit club of the state-controlled Jordanian Press Association. A draft cybercrime law is in the works that would seek to punish anyone who posts something on social media that might be perceived by the authorities to be inflammatory, echoing Egypt’s own cybercrime law. Ninety-five percent of Jordanian journalists admit to self-censorship.

It is against this gloomy context that ARIJ holds its 11th Annual Forum in Jordan (November 30 to December 2) under the theme, “Investigative Journalism; Trends, Tools and Technology.”

All “ARIJEANS” — as the network’s many investigative journalists call themselves — deserve exceptional support and recognition for the courage, integrity and commitment they have displayed while pursuing this “mission impossible” of performing real journalism in one of the world’s riskiest regions.

We won’t remain silent bystanders. We will brace for the worst and keep pushing for media freedom, rule of law, transparency, justice and human dignity.

Image: ARIJ annual conference 2017, courtesy ARIJ. 

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Rana Sabbagh