Research studies

Trends in the Arab Investigative Reporting: The Role of Investigative Reporting in Political Reform in the Arab World


Prepared by the researcher :

  • Dr. Ahmed Makharesh School of Media and Communication The University of Southern MississippiU.S.A 
  • Dr. Shlash Alzyoud School of Media and Communication The University of Southern Mississippi U.S.A 
  • Dr. Manasar Alharethi/ College of Arts And Humanities Taibah University K.S.A 

Democratic Arabic Center

Journal of Afro-Asian Studies : Nineteenth Issue – November 2023

A Periodical International Journal published by the “Democratic Arab Center” Germany – Berlin

Nationales ISSN-Zentrum für Deutschland
ISSN  2628-6475
Journal of Afro-Asian Studies

:To download the pdf version of the research papers, please visit the following link


The importance of investigative journalism stems from its roles, such as making severe decisions regarding political reforms, officials’ accountability, and increasing credibility. Therefore, investigative reporting aims to reveal corruption and inappropriate behavior in the government, non-government facilities, or publishing hidden news. Furthermore, the role of investigative journalism can also be an element of pressure on the authorities to make deterrent or decisive decisions. This paper examines the role of investigative reporting in making reforms despite the Arabian regimes’ strict control of the media system. The researchers interviewed three prominent and qualified Arabian investigative journalists who have conducted several investigations and won local and global awards for their hard work. This paper found that Arab investigative reporters face challenges that are more problematic and difficult than the barriers for foreign journalists. Furthermore, there is no suitable working environment for investigative journalists in the Arab world because of the strict state control. That does not mean there is no investigative journalism, but that means Arabian investigative journalists face a lot of additional pressure at work. Non-profit and foreign media organizations with Arabic versions, such as BBC, assist Arab journalists in investigating and distributing their investigations. Moreover, this paper found that some heads of Arab states gain traction and popularity for their intervention in making reforms. Still, most of these interventions are temporary reactions, and corruption reappears once the direct intervention has concluded. Ultimately, rulers in the Arab world carefully know that freedom of the press is one of the most sacred constitutional rights, but it is no longer than ink on paper. However, they still make some decisions unless the investigators directly attack them and their policies.


In order to represent the public and reveal illegal activity so that perpetrators can be brought to justice, investigative journalism is a crucial part of local communities (Burgh, 2008). In order to avoid censorship and government control (Hamdy, 2009), citizen journalism has become popular in the Arab world (Deen & Pan, 2021). Regular citizens can now contribute news through blogging and social media (Ahmad, 2022; Deen & Pan, 2022; Safori et al., 2016). Investigative reporting gained popularity due to the Arab Spring, which enabled Arab journalists to concentrate on it and overturn earlier media limitations (Hamdy, 2013). The public and media outlets can now conduct investigations, creating high-quality material (Alrajhi, 2017; Alzyoud, 2022).

Due to the Arab Spring revolutions, investigative citizen journalism has become significantly more important in the Arab world (Alrajhi, 2017).

There is little research on investigative journalism in the Arab world; the studies that do exist primarily examine the perspectives of media producers and examine the development, views, and social-political effects of the practice (Alzyoud & Makharesh, 2023; Bebawi, 2016; Deen & Pan, 2022; Hamdy, 2013; Makharesh, 2018; Makharesh et al., 2022). However, investigative reporting, including the roles that investigative reporting might play, must be studied because greater openness, democratic information access, and increased public trust are all achieved (Deen & Pan, 2022; Khushaim, 2022).

In this paper, the researchers examine the role of investigative reporting in making reforms despite the strict control of the media system in the Arab world. The researchers examine how investigative work operates in the Arab world by creating a model that allows us to understand how investigative reports led to urgent reforms in the Arab world. Our main contention in this paper is that the rhetoric of uncommitted and discouraged media professional journalists incorrectly assumes that investigative reporting is a method of journalism that will not induce any change. In fact, these rhetoric’s of distrust justify gridlock by not giving numerous Arabian investigative reporters the appreciation they deserve for their extensive efforts. Therefore, investigative reporting is an essential media method that provides the occasion to take stock of political, democratic, and media performance. 


Investigative Journalism: Definition and Origins

Investigative reporting has been extensively examined, especially in the country where it was first practiced—the United States. The American Revolution, the period known as the Progressive Era, and the mid-1960s to mid-1970s have been designated as the three cycles of investigative journalism (Feldstein, 2006). The Pentagon Papers, the My Lai Massacre, and Watergate were important stories during the last wave, which saw the institutionalization of investigative journalism as a distinct paradigm (Hamdy, 2013). Global effects have resulted from the founding of groups like Investigative Journalists and Editors (IRE) and the Global Investigative Journalistic Network (GIJN) (Burgh, 2000; Houston, 2010). The Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), which exposes political and other types of corruption or scandal, is a model of investigative journalism in the Arab world (Aucoin, 2005). Beginning in Sweden and Western Europe and spreading to Latin America and other areas, this significant paradigm has been adopted worldwide (Burgh, 2000; Feldstein, 2006; Houston, 2010).

According to numerous academics and media sources (Aayeshah & Bebawi, 2015; de Burgh, 2008; Ettema & Glassers, 1998; Hunter, 2012), investigative journalism is a subclass of journalism that attempts to unearth the truth and expose controversial subjects. Investigative journalism has a long history in the Arab world, beginning with the early efforts of journalists like Mohammad Hassanein Heikal and Ihsan Abdul Qudous in the 1950s and 1960s (Bebawi, 2016; Sabbagh, 2016).

Investigative journalism was intended to be promoted throughout the area when Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) was founded in 2005 (Sabbagh, 2016). Investigative journalism is essential to democratization because it highlights ineffective laws, promotes a liberal political climate, and aids in democratic governance (Makharesh et al., 2022). The people can now contribute news and expose wrongdoing while professional journalists continue to provide context and identify important concerns thanks to technological developments in media creation (Scott et al., 2015).

Investigative journalism, which covers a wide range of subjects including politics, law, society, culture, and psychology, has historically played a significant role in democratizing nations by exposing covert decisions and discourses (Marques, 2023). It represents the public’s voice by bringing to light hidden information, exposing wrongdoing, and holding offenders accountable (Broughton, 2019; Carson, 2019; Islam, 2021). Additionally, it puts pressure on authorities and sways opposing opinions. Media organizations have incorporated investigative journalism into their courses in recognition of its importance. Investigative journalism has produced notable results in the Arab world, pressuring decision-makers to take essential steps (Almazrouei et al., 2020).

Arab States’ Strict Control on Media

Although it has historically been heavily censored and under government control, Arab mass media has long been an important part of daily communication (Bebawi, 2016; Rugh, 2004). Governmental agendas and policies were communicated to the public by state-run media outlets (Rugh, 2004). However, recent events have made it possible for some opposition and dissident voices to be heard in Arab media, which has resulted in a change from exclusive discourse to a more inclusive one (Lahlali, 2016). Traditional Arab media sources continue to be subject to strict supervision, while new media platforms encounter additional difficulties because of particular laws and rules (Shishkina & Issaev, 2018). Arab media is gradually adopting new responsibilities intended to promote growth and nation-building in this shifting environment (Makharesh, 2018).

State control has historically been a significant component in the Arab media landscape, which has varied substantially across various nations and areas (Rugh, 2004; El Oifi, 2019; Zayani, 2019). Investigative reporting, which was considered a foreign practice, had difficulties in Arab media systems, emphasizing the absence of a consistent strategy (Bebawi, 2016; Rugh, 2004). It was highlighted by the stark differences in the dynamics of the media systems in Lebanon and Syria and how diversified the Arab media is (Haider et al., 2021). Rugh (2004), in this regard, divided Arab media systems into four groups: tactical, pro-government, diverse, and transitional. Each group was distinguished by varying degrees of press freedom and government engagement.

In the Arab world, the most recent political transformations, which were witnessed after the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, strengthened the status and importance of investigative journalism practice (see Badr, 2021; Moore-Gilbert & Abdul-Nabi, 2021). The role of investigative journalism in the enhancement of democracy in the Arab world is a controversial issue because it raises many complex questions about the limits of the impact of investigative journalism on the creation of a liberal political environment and contributes to the production of democracy.

Bebawi (2016) wrote the book titled “Investigative Journalism in the Arab World: Issues and Challenges” and assured that journalists in the Arab world face various challenges. Bebawi continued to emphasize that Arab investigative journalists face difficulties such as funding and political restrictions across the world. Challenges faced by each Arab country are also linked to other factors, such as social norms, the culture of journalism, and funding issues (Fakhoury, 2019; Makharesh, 2018).

Investigative Journalism Towards Policy Reforms

In the wake of the Arab Spring, investigative reporting practice gained significant momentum in revealing the defects in State institutions, monitoring the performance of political and community institutions more effectively and very boldly (see Badr, 2021; Moore-Gilbert & Abdul-Nabi, 2021). Thus, Arab journalists quickly developed their investigative skills by applying to investigative journalism institutions to reach professionalism and gain the necessary support to conduct their investigations officially (see Moldovan, 2020; Moore-Gilbert & Abdul-Nabi, 2021; Zhang & Wang, 2022).

Therefore, several of the Arab and foreign investigative institutions welcomed the opportunity to work with this motivated generation of journalists. The Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) and Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) are transparent sources of investigative institutions that have helped to rehabilitate large numbers of journalists from all over the Arab world (Global Investigative Journalism Network, 2023).

As the first non-profit devoted to educating and promoting investigative journalism in the Arab world, the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) was founded in Amman, Jordan, in 2005 (Bebawi, 2021). In order to equip Arab journalists from diverse nations with the investigative skills they need, ARIJ has held workshops and trained them (Makharesh, 2018). ARIJ has a policy of entering into contracts with trainees, who are then given assistance by ARIJ to carry out their inquiries and locate appropriate media channels to present their work.

By enhancing the capacities and competencies of media professionals, ARIJ seeks to advance the culture of investigative journalism, according to Bebawi (2019). Through its work, ARIJ has been successful in developing a new generation of Arab journalists who have carried out essential investigations and contributed significantly to the field.

Several investigative reports resulted in actions such as the establishment of commissions, legislative changes, and judicial investigations. The  “Radioactive Hills” is an investigative report that demonstrated the unsafe treatment of phosphate hills in Rusayfah, Jordan. Consequently, King Abdullah II of Jordan worked to set up a special commission to hold and arrest all perpetrators and bring them promptly to trial and compensate those affected (ARIJ, 2016). In Egypt, the Egyptian Cabinet approved a bill to amend inheritance laws following an investigation highlighting the absence of legislation protecting women’s inheritance rights and using the “Al-Radwa” custom to settle inheritance cases. Two months after the “Children without Descent” investigation, the Syrian government launched a law to care for people of unknown descent (Mahmoud, 2018).

 Palestinian investigative journalist Mahmoud Haniyeh disclosed corruption in the Palestinian Naval Unit that has allowed illegal fishing in the Port of Gaza. Haniyeh’s investigation exposed the legal violations that the Maritime Police Authority is implementing in Gaza. As a result of this, the Legislative Council formed a fact-finding committee that recommended referring the agency’s officials to the judicial investigation (Mahmoud, 2018).

The Political Practice in the Arab World

For there to be freedom on the globe, political and civil liberties must be evaluated. These liberties include those related to elections, creating political parties, and defending different citizen rights (Karatnycky, 2002). By serving as a watchdog, pursuing the truth, and giving various viewpoints on important matters, journalism plays an essential role in a democratic society (McChesney, 2004). Journalism and democracy are intertwined, with journalism requiring a democratic atmosphere for autonomous practice and democracy depending on journalism for accountability (Pajnik & Hrženjak, 2022; Trappel & Tomaz, 2021). Investigating powerful authorities may raise concerns about the support and freedom given to journalists, which poses difficulties for investigative journalism and democracy in the Arab world due to political and cultural reasons (Bebawi, 2019).

In contrast to advancements for democracy in areas like Latin America, Africa, East-Central Europe, and South and East Asia over the past two decades, the Arabian world has seen an upsurge in repressive governments (Karatnycky, 2002). In 2002, instability in the Arab world put mature democracies, democratic governments, and market systems in jeopardy. However, some leaders took advantage of this instability to strengthen democracies and develop democratic practices (Karatnycky, 2002).

Around two-thirds of the world’s population or two billion people, are said to reside under repressive regimes, according to Freedom House (Noir, 2015). Due to the severe state control of the media, the practice of investigative journalism in the Arab world raises issues, prompting the query of how Arab investigative journalists continue their work, as noted by Noir (2015). The best way to address this point is to design a model that describes the entire process of investigative reporting (see Figure 1).

Model Discussion:

Figure 1. Arab Investigative Reporting Mechanism

Investigative journalism in the Arab world persists despite strict control by Arabian regimes (Badr, 2021; Makharesh, 2018). Arab media originated from oral and print media forms, with the first Arab newspaper published in Baghdad in 1816 (Rugh, 2004). As radio stations emerged in the 1920s, governments in the region swiftly asserted control over media platforms (Lahlali, 2011). Back to the model, this led to two types of media: state-controlled outlets and independent organizations like Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) (El Oifi, 2019; Zayani, 2019).

While state-run media occasionally conducted investigations focusing on trivial matters, non-profit organizations like ARIJ trained and supported investigative journalists who relied on foreign media channels such as BBC and social media platforms to share their work (Bebawi, 2021; Pickard, 2019). Investigations carried out by these skilled reporters gained attention and brought important issues to light. Some investigations even influenced decision-making by rulers, showcasing the impact of investigative reporting (Al-shawabkeh, 2020). Despite the challenging circumstances imposed by Arabian regimes, investigative journalism in the Arab world remains crucial in uncovering hidden truths and ensuring accountability (Al-Shami, 2020).

Throughout this model, it fosters competition among media outlets, enhances journalistic skills, and catalyzes political reforms (Culloty & Suiter, 2021). Notably, ARIJ’s investigations have yielded significant results, such as prompting legislative debates in Lebanon, investigations by the Egyptian Ministry of Health, draft laws in Syria, and demands accountability in Jordan (ARIJ, 2018). These cases exemplify the impact and importance of investigative journalism in the Arab world.


RQ1) How does investigative reporting contribute to achieving reforms in the Arab world despite the stringent control of the media system?

RQ2) How do Arab investigative reporters find fundamental support and a place to share their work?

RQ3) How do Arabs, and state authorities interact with investigative reports?

RQ4) What are the reforms that have been taken due to investigative reports?


Using purposive sampling, an in-depth interviews with three participants who are considered to be experts on investigative reporting were explicitly chosen for this qualitative study. Therefore, this study is based on the experiences of three chosen journalists because they had representative and accumulated sets of experiences in investigative reporting, particularly in the Arab world (see Creswell, 2016). Therefore, they offer insightful and significant contributions to this study, which focuses on the Arab region, with their thoughts and insights.


This study involves three journalists who have dedicated their careers to investigative and citizen journalism in the Arab world. Purposive sampling is used in this study because it enables the deliberate selection of a population that most closely matches the phenomenon or topic being studied (Creswell, 2016). The informants were carefully selected based on their extensive experience and active involvement in investigative journalism in the region. Informant #1, Mark Lee Hunter, is an American investigative journalist who collaborated with Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and contributed to the development of the manual “Story-Based Inquiry.” Informant #2, Hanan Khandakji, is a Jordanian journalist known for her impactful investigations, including exposing corruption and shedding light on issues such as the mistreatment of phosphate hills and violations against children with special needs in care centers. Her work caught the attention of King Abdullah II of Jordan, who took immediate action to address the issues. Informant #3, Mus’ab Alshawabkeh, is an award-winning investigative journalist who played a significant role in establishing investigative reporting units and participating in the Panama Papers investigation. Alshawabkeh also has extensive experience teaching investigative journalism to Arab journalists.

Interview Guide and Instrument

The researchers examine the perspectives of three participants who prefer online interviews over in-person ones because they are difficult to reach or live a long way apart. Since the early 1990s, detailed email interviews have been done successfully (see Murray, 1995–1996; Meho, 2006). The researchers conducted online conversations with potential participants to enlist informants for their research on investigative journalism. They were successful in doing so because of the participants’ enthusiasm for the subject. Open-ended questioning techniques were used to ask the informants the questions at their convenience. To achieve the goals of the study, a semi-structured procedure containing open-ended questions was developed (See Appendix A).


Through their professional emails and the authors official emails, the informants of this study responded to the paper’s queries. Each participant responded to the questions in a separate email. After receiving the responses, the researchers carefully analyzed each one responses. We received every response and saved it as an official transcript. The informants first received and returned the research questions and consent forms.


M.H. defined investigative reporting as something public that the audience was unaware of or that the investigative journalists had covered and unveiled. H.K. and M.A. draw attention to the Arab world’s lack of knowledge and respect for investigative journalism. Media producers don’t understand how time- and resource-consuming it is for journalists to spend months away from their desks to conduct a 45-minute inquiry. While M.A. views investigative journalism as revealing hidden facts through unearthing secrets or connecting unrelated bits of information, H.K. underlines the need for chief editors to support and comprehend it. They observe the availability of the material in English and commonly run into these difficulties in Arab nations.

According to M.H, there is no difference between using investigative journalism abroad and in the Arab world. M.H. made sure that in the Arab world, investigative journalism is pressuring officials to respond to it. The Arab world, according to M.H., is a revolutionary region. It will be exceedingly challenging for journalists to produce that kind of job. H.K. and M.A. also draw attention to the Arab world’s limited comprehension and appreciation of investigative journalism. H.K. underlines the necessity for chief editors’ support and comprehensive comprehension of the advantages it delivers. Media producers frequently fail to comprehend how time- and resource-intensive investigative work is.

M.H. responded that it is highly unpleasant for politicians to be swayed by the media. He continued by saying that, to his knowledge, no media sector has ever been able to function for an extended period of time as nothing but an enemy. Despite government control over the media, investigative journalism continues to exist in the Arab world. Nonprofit organizations and independent journalists have nurtured investigative talent that has attained attention and success. However, compared to their international counterparts, Arab investigative journalists confront more significant restrictions and barriers, making it difficult for them to cover more extensive subjects. M.A. adds that because head-of-state interventions are transient and corruption reemerges once the intervention is over, investigation findings frequently fall short of bringing about long-term reforms.

According to the three informants, the main challenge for investigative journalism in the Arab world is a lack of information. The informants of this study continued by saying that the chief editor is the investigative journalist’s primary foe. Additionally, there is no funding available in Arab media institutions for this kind of reporting. For example, the chief editor is ready to spend $10,000 on a Mercedes car but will not spend $200 on a reporter who is going to a potentially remote place to write an inquiry report.


In this essay, I have argued that Arab investigative journalists are hardly working in the field and their investigative reports assist in making reforms despite the Arabian regimes’ strict control on the media system. Investigative journalism takes a particular goal at uncovering the truth and bring it to the public. This role can be hardly practiced in repressive regions such as the majority of the Arab countries.

Despite the state strict control over the media outlets, individual journalistic attempts have successfully conducted investigative reports and distributed them either through social media platforms or by traditional media sources. Those reports have achieved numerous citizens’ and rulers’ attractions. As a practice that engages analysis, a negative vision also might be existed by media practitioners towards the important role that investigative reports may have. Envisioning an investigator who practices investigative reports in the Arab world, non-profit media organizations have helped this new generation of investigators to move forward to transfer their proposals into visual, written, and audio investigative reports.

It is not possible to mention democracy without investigative journalism because it is the muscle of democracy. As mentioned, the goal of investigative reporting is to reveal the truth and create a balance and stability between the two opposing points of view. This is why some officials and rulers take serious decisions and pay attention to some investigations. They highly consider the role that investigative journalistic tools can inspire and motivate the public to look, understand and act in the interest of the word “democracy.” Ultimately, rulers in the Arab world carefully know that freedom of the press is one of the most sacred constitutional rights, but it is no longer than ink on paper. However, they still make some decisions unless the investigators directly attack them and their policies.


Interview Protocol

1) How would you please, define investigative journalism?

2) What are the needs of investigative journalists?

3) How did social, cultural, and political factors shape the formation of the concept of investigative journalism in the Arab world?

4) How does Eastern investigative journalism practice differ from investigative reporting in the West?

5) How can citizen investigative journalism explore new and hidden issues?

6) How easily can Arab investigative reporters investigate new and hidden issues?

8) Will Arab investigative reporters in the Arab world face any risks or negative impacts in their lives as investigative journalists? How?

9) What difficulties might Arab investigative reporters face and expose due to their work?

10) What is the relevance of the role that investigative journalism has played in pressuring Arab governments to enact reforms?

11) What functions does investigative journalism have in putting pressure on Arab leaders to enact change and reform?

12) What effect does investigative journalism have on government policies and their capacity to implement long-term reforms in the Arab world?


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المركز الديمقراطى العربى

المركز الديمقراطي العربي مؤسسة مستقلة تعمل فى اطار البحث العلمى والتحليلى فى القضايا الاستراتيجية والسياسية والاقتصادية، ويهدف بشكل اساسى الى دراسة القضايا العربية وانماط التفاعل بين الدول العربية حكومات وشعوبا ومنظمات غير حكومية.

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