Fighting Fake News

Independent and accurate journalism has always been hard to come by in our part of the world. But thanks to work of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), the tide is finally turning.

By Rana Sabbagh

It’s not often these days that Arab states can lay claim to creating a world-class innovation before the West. But when it comes to fake news, we were pumping it out way before they did.

Not just fake news, but fake government policies, fake constitutions, fake laws, fake traditions, fake religious justification for violence, suppression of women, fake budgets, and fake jobs.

In this region, many of us know fake when we see it. It’s built into our DNA and into the foundations of our societies. But very few of us—citizens or journalists—are prepared to fight it. The cost is too high and the effort too time consuming.

To say that social media has been used against us would be an understatement. Our private communications have been hacked by political authorities, and the truth has become a quite uninspiring voice in a changing world where extremes shout loudest. The filters of accuracy and fairness are harder to apply.

Most of what goes viral online is nonsense. But people still buy nonsense—especially if it accords with the world as they see it, or want to see it.

Furthermore, when a US president prefers to trust the word of a former, mid-ranking KGB officer over his own intelligence agencies, then we really are deep within the land of make believe.

All of us have become victims of bad journalism and of fabricated news. The difference, however, is that the West is witnessing a massive push back, and of which there’s little evidence of here in the Arab world.

Controversies over fake news have damaged trust in media in America and elsewhere. The impact is far worse for social media and digital specialists than for traditional print and TV.

Does that mean that professional journalists should just give up? Certainly not. But neither should we underestimate the obstacles put up by official repression that journalists—especially a few brave and committed investigative reporters in the Arab world—face every day. The battle to counter fake news and deception by battalions of “electronic fighters” working for governments, security services, officials, businessmen and politicians, is daunting and complex.

This month, some 400 Arab journalists convened in Jordan for the tenth annual edition of the  ARIJ Forum. Fake News was the focus of the meeting.

ARIJ is a network that aims to promote fair and honest reporting by offering training to journalists and commissioning of stories.

The journalists we help often find covering the least controversial of topics such as health and education to be problematic. This is hardly surprising when you consider the significant conflict of interests that lie at the heart of some media outlets.

We know of one Sudanese journalist who published an investigation into illegal chicken farming in residential areas, but was unable to name one of the main perpetrators because he owned the newspaper.

ARIJ trainers are hearing more and more stories like this from journalists worried their work will put them in danger. In Yemen, for instance, there is simply no free media anymore. You either work for pro-government or pro-Houthi media. The situation in Egypt isn’t much better. At least 25 journalists are currently imprisoned in Egypt for doing their legitimate work, according to Amnesty International.

While in Jordan, private and state-run newspapers run virtually the same front-page photos and news thanks to efficient “white glove” censorship. The top executive of an upcoming new public broadcaster—allegedly promoting a more socially liberal editorial agenda—is appointed by official decree. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and elsewhere, laws intended to stop cybercriminals and terrorists are being turned against journalists.

The crisis in the Gulf has also exposed the rot at the Pan-Arab media level as well. No one can now pretend that outlets like Al Jazeera, Sky News Arabiya, and Alarabiya, represent anything other than partisan views.

Against this gloomy media scene, the Arab journalists meeting in Jordan were joined by top international investigative journalists who shared ideas and tools to deploy against censorship and disinformation. At the forum, journalists learned about encrypting software and files, shielding sources, protecting themselves against physical violence and about digital narration to give their reports urgency.

A lot is demanded of Arab journalists. They deserve your support.

Rana Sabbagh is the executive director of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism. The organization is funded by SIDA, IMS, DAAP, OSF and the Norwegian and Dutch Foreign Ministries.