Magazine article Nieman Reports

Investigative Journalism in the Arab World: 'Why Not Create a ProPublica-Like News Organization Here to Give the Public More Watchdog Journalism?'

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Investigative Journalism in the Arab World: 'Why Not Create a ProPublica-Like News Organization Here to Give the Public More Watchdog Journalism?'

Article excerpt

Arab news organizations largely report visible events, rather than uncover news about what isn't. Investigative journalism has never taken off in the Arab world as it has in the West. To put it mildly, government officials in this region don't look favorably on the idea, not that their counterparts in Western democracies always appreciate the stories watchdog reporters produce. But in Arab countries journalists face a barbed maze fraught with intimidation, demotion, incarceration and sometimes even death.

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The most common way that Arab governments stifle investigative reporting is by applying financial pressure. Arab states are intimately involved in the economic well-being of many Arab news organizations so they apply pressure in several ways, most notably through ownership or advertising. In return, they get homage. Perhaps the best-known example is Al-Jazeera, funded by the Qatari royal family and which broadcasts nary a report critical of Qatar's government. But there are others. Egypt's Al-Ashram newspaper, the country's largest in circulation, is owned by President Hosni Mubarak's regime and is dutifully pro-government. Jordan's largest circulation daily, Al-Rai, is also partly owned by the ruling government, and its devotion to the monarchy is similarly clear.

Some Arab governments also heavily subsidize or buy advertising in privately owned news outlets which, should they publish something the government finds unseemly, could suddenly find themselves without one of their largest clients. Most major newspapers in the United Arab Emirates, for example, if not owned outright by the regime, receive heavy government subsidies.

The result of this patronage isn't surprising. To put a contemporary twist on what George Bernard Shaw observed: A government that pays Peter to write about Paul will always be pleased with coverage of Paul.

So from my perch as a journalism professor in Cairo, I have wondered whether as nonprofit investigative journalism becomes more prevalent in the West, donation-driven journalism might create and sustain a more independent and investigative press in Arab countries. Could nonprofit journalism organizations in the United States, such as the longstanding Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and the more recently founded ProPublica, serve as inspiration for investments in the Arab world that would promote investigative reporting? After all, these two nonprofits, along with several even newer ones with similar missions and funding streams (a mix of foundations and individual donors), have given investigative reporting a significant boost at a time when many cash-strapped news organizations aren't able to support it as they once did. ProPublica won a Pulitzer Prize this year for its coverage of the life-and-death decisions of exhausted doctors at a Katrina-battered hospital in New Orleans.

Throughout the Arab world, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) fund efforts to promote economic development. Why not create a ProPublica-like news organization here to give the public more watchdog journalism?

An Arab Nonprofit Center

Here's what I envision. Financially, a nonprofit center for investigative journalism would be set up in ways similar to CPI and funded by foundations and individuals. An initial grant to fund this organization would come from a place like the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation or the Carnegie Corporation with the hope of generating long-term support from other groups and individuals. (It wouldn't work to have money from either a government agency or labor union as part of the mix.) Once the center starts to publish investigative reports that Arab citizens find useful, then more funding would find its way to supporting this effort. …

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