Is the Arab World Ready for More Investigative Journalism?
AMMAN—A discussion about introducing investigative journalism, which often challenges authority and uncovers corruption, revealed the challenges that journalism education itself faces in the Arab region.
Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, an independent non-profit network founded by Arab media activists, is finalizing a manual of teaching investigative reporting at Arab universities.
The manual, titled A Story-Based Inquiry: A manual for investigative journalists, should be available within one month. But a draft drew intense discussion by 16 professors from seven Arab countries during a two-day workshop held recently in Amman.
Professors were taught about investigative-reporting teaching techniques from A to Z based on the manual.
The book’s 80 pages guide professors and students through the basics of conceiving, structuring, researching, composing and publishing an investigative article, said Mark Lee Hunter, the manual’s main author, who supervised the workshop along with the network’s senior trainers.
The manual was first published in 2009 in several languages and has already been listed on over 200 websites and used in journalism schools and centers in the United States, Africa, Europe and China. It is based on doctoral-level research and 100 years of professional experience, Hunter said, including that of experts from the Global Investigative Journalism Network.
The new version has been adapted for the Arab world by including a special chapter about legislation in the region. “Many of Arab journalists believe that investigative journalism causes legal risks, so they need to know well their rights and duties,” said Hunter, who is also a professor of media and investigative journalism at the France-based (INSEAD), said.
In fact in many Arab countries, state-controlled media dominate the media landscape and journalists can be charged with criminal, not just civil, charges in the courts for having defamed others. Truth is not always enough of a defense, as a recent report on media laws in Gulf Council Cooperation countries found.
Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism expects that at least five Arab universities will use the manual in their classrooms next fall.
“Since we started eight years ago, we have invited media professors to all our workshops and conferences to promote investigative journalism among them as it was a very new term,” said Rana Sabbagh, the Global Investigative Journalism Network’s executive director. “We hope that our manual could assist professors to train the future generation of media professionals on investigative journalism to ensure greater accountability and transparency.”
But changing university curricula is not an easy task in the region. “It is a complex process and linked more to the [education] ministry than to the faculty,” said Hashim Al-Tameemi, dean of the college of media at Baghdad University. “Our jurisdictions as professors don’t exceed 20 percent, but we do our best to do something within this limited margin.”
So far, investigative journalism is not taught in journalism schools of Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, professors at the workshop said. “Arab news organizations largely report visible events, rather than uncover news about what isn’t visible,” said Mohamed Abd El-Hadi, a media professor from the University of Aden. “But it is time for change,” he said pointing out to the political changes in the region.
In Palestine and Syria, the curriculum is somewhat more modern and the principles of investigative journalism are already being taught there. Damascus University updated its journalism curriculum in 2009-2010, a professor said. “We have taught investigative journalism for two terms now,” said Arabi Al-Masri, head of the radio and television department at the University of Damascus. “But we need to learn more teaching techniques to deliver our course more professionally.”
Nashat Aqtash, a professor at Birzeit University, agrees with Al-Masri about the importance of training professors. “There are many professors who lack practical experience,” he said.
In Lebanon, where more than 35 universities operate, the situation differs from one university to another. For example, the Lebanese American University and Saint Joseph’s University have already started teaching investigative journalism in their undergraduate programs. The subject is taught for master’s degree work, however, at the University of Balamand.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese University—the only public university in the country—is struggling to introduce an investigative reporting module into the
curriculum. “Some professors oppose considering it as a basic subject,” said George Klaas the dean of faculty of mass media at the Lebanese University. “We need to get rid of the old methods of teaching.”
Yasmine Dabbous, an assistant professor at the Lebanese American University and a board member of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, said private universities are more dynamic where change can take place faster than at public ones. “Change will happen, I am sure, but it needs time,” she said. “At least we have started.”