Inspired by their experiences as prisoners and refugees, some of the world’s boldest investigative journalists have formed a coalition to fight back against the censors and autocrats.
Their new vehicle is The Investigative Journal, a digital platform dedicated to publishing long reports that land on the website like academic papers in PDF format. They cover subjects ranging from Turkey’s role in arming Jihadist groups in Syria to the human cost of PM (particulate matter), which is polluting the air in cities around the world.
The Investigative Journal – catchline “Truth in Journalism” – formally launched this week in London, where it has a small office. At an event in Southwark Cathedral on Tuesday, the founders highlighted how journalists have never faced such peril in their work (2018 was the deadliest year on record, with 60 killed, 80 held hostage and 348 jailed worldwide). They called on civil societies to do more to protect press freedoms.
The keynote speech at the launch of The Investigative Journal was given by award-winning Philippines journalist Maria Ressa, founder and chief executive of Manila-based news website The Rappler, which is under threat of closure following its critical reporting of president Rodrigo Duterte’s government. She is being advised by human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. Rappler is working with TIJ to co-fund investigations.
TIJ’s chief executive is Mohamed Fahmy, one of three Al Jazeera English journalists held in prison for more than a year by the Egyptian government on false charges of being aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood. He was freed and pardoned in 2015 after being represented by Clooney. The UK envoy on media freedom, Clooney is taking part in the two-day Global Conference for Media Freedom, which began yesterday in London, hosted by the UK and Canadian governments.
In an interview with The Drum, Fahmy said the alliance of investigative reporters was unprecedented. “There’s this sense of security amongst us, sticking together because the danger continues,” he says. “We are a team and it’s a feeling I never had before – journalists are normally competitive beyond belief. We are working together.”
The TIJ advisory board includes two American journalists, Lindsey Snell and Theo Padnos, who have been held captive by al-Nusra Front (an Al Qaeda affiliate) after being abducted in separate incidents while attempting to report from Syria.
Another board member, Turkish journalist Abdullah Bozkurt, fled to Sweden after his newspaper was closed down by the Turkish government. Taha Siddiqui, a Pakistani investigative journalist, lives in exile in Paris after facing threats from the Pakistani military and surviving an abduction attempt in 2018. Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye was arrested in Ethiopia in 2011 while investigating human rights abuses, and held for 14 months under anti-terror laws.
“It feels like a coalition against the repression of journalists,” says Fahmy of the TIJ. “You have a team that is living in many different corners of the world and all of these guys have been not only on the frontline but have a lot of experience in dealing with incarceration and legal issues and autocratic governments.”
These experiences “embolden us and give us a lot of strength”, he says, bringing a common sense of purpose to a group of reporters who share expertise and contacts. “There’s a cohesion between these journalists who see an opportunity for us to continue our mission of poking where we are not welcome, in an [era] when journalists are being targeted by both governments and extremist groups – there’s no neutral ground anymore.”
The TIJ promises to publish two or three investigations each month and is also launching a weekly show, filmed in a studio in New York and hosted by experienced anchor Tal Heinrich. Fahmy says he is in discussion with several major news organisations to partner on co-financed investigations and live panel events.
After a long career in broadcast news he expresses scepticism that commercially-funded networks are able to hold to account regimes with which they have a financial relationship. “You see advertisements on big channels from companies such as Turkish Airlines or Qatar Airways, Emirates Airlines,” he points out. “There’s this unspoken understanding between the marketing departments of these channels that maybe you don’t really want to take that extra step to expose and anger these governments, so that these sponsorships continue to come in. That’s why you don’t see these groundbreaking reports on TV.”
Fahmy asks why there wasn’t more footage of the legions of foreign fighters who flooded into Syria. “We see the story that they are there but we don’t know how they got there.” Some of the answers, he claims, are there in Bozkurt’s 30-page report, based on leaked documents, audio recordings and confidential interviews with officials, alleging that the Turkish intelligence agency MIT used fleets of trucks to ferry arms shipments across the Syrian border to jihadist groups fighting the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Fahmy is especially pleased that TIJ is going after the regime of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which “for four years in a row” has had the highest number of journalists incarcerated. “You hear Erdoğan say he’s going to cleanse Syria from terrorism – well that’s because he’s the guy who’s pushing the buttons on these (jihadist) groups.”
Fahmy, who is Egyptian but has taken Canadian citizenship and is based in Vancouver, covered the 2003 Iraq War for The Los Angeles Times, before a broadcast career that took him to CNN and Al Jazeera. He wrote about his 438 days in jail in a book The Marriott Cell: An Epic Journey from Cairo’s Scorpion Prison to Freedom. “What really saved me sitting in that cell was knowing that my fellow journalists out there were fighting for me and keeping my story alive so that I wasn’t just languishing as another statistic behind bars,” he says of the campaign for his release.
The TIJ is founded on a similar sense of solidarity. It aims to diversify its content to cover subjects including “health, environment, economic corruption,” its chief executive says. “We are not just Middle East-focused, we have a report in the pipeline on the indigenous people in Canada and the suffering they are going though.”
The agenda, he says, is based on “stories that are being marginalised by the mainstream media”.
In challenging regimes, the TIJ can expect questions about its own agenda. It is funded by a UK-based architect and philanthropist, Yousri Ishaq, who has previous ties to the US-based Middle East Broadcasting Network, a non-profit organisation.
Fahmy says he trusts Ishaq’s motivations. “I have seen the humanitarian in him as a person who really cares about the pillars we are focusing on, which revolve around refugees, victims of terrorism, the environment…,” he says. “I believe in him as a human being who wants to do something good with his money rather than just invest in another real estate company.”
The TIJ, which has a staff of six but is broadening its network of contributors, has two years of funding in place. There will be powerful forces who hope it does not succeed.
"Already our website has been attacked over 15 times and there have been attempts to take it down by what our webmaster says can only be done by the sophistication of governments," Fahmy claims.
“We are seeing the pushback and we understand it will get worse because the more work you do in exposing what they are trying to hide the more they are going to come after you. But we have been there before and we are ready for it in every possible way.