Free access to information is guaranteed by law in 123 countries - only six of them are Arab countries. Although journalists can ask the government for information, the state may claim it's “confidential” or “poses a threat to national security”. Two of our members explain how finding sources in public offices, the people who are willing to take risks to uncover the truth, became their primary course.
Dena Salem (Syria)
I want to focus here on the situation that proceeded the last eight years during which we’ve lived the horrors of war, and where issues of concern to people became absent from Syrian media.
Once, I had to lie in order to obtain information.
Even though journalists have the right to access information, according to the Syrian Constitution and Media Law, in practice, this is not happening. The Media Law states that governmental bodies should “facilitate journalists entry to public offices and the receipt of information”. But the Law also grants the Prime Minister the right to determine what sort of information can be blocked from journalists, which undermines the foundation of the law. It was very common for the prime minister to give orders to block information because it might be “exploited by hostile entities”.
At the time, I was working for an official media institution, which was the mouthpiece of the government. I could easily obtain information because government bodies knew I could not publish anything negative and that we were subject to censorship. I saw many contradictions between the real figures and what we were actually publishing. Published statistics, for example, would show good growth rates, while the real number indicates the opposite. Under such circumstances, journalists tried to obtain information using their personal connections. Journalists in private and foreign media would use their connections, but they also sent gifts and paid bribes in order to get information from security sources.
Once, I had to lie in order to obtain information. This was when I was assigned by my editor to write about pollution which, in some areas, had reached life-threatening levels. My assignment was part of a plan put by a government media committee to improve Syria’s image with regards to public freedoms. So we were allowed to publish certain reports that criticised the government.
I knew that the Ministry of Environment had prepared a study about the issue, but despite all my efforts, I couldn’t obtain this study. So I approached the director of the minister's office and told him that I have data about the levels of pollution, and I will publish this data as it is if I don’t get the study. I also told him I will mention in the report that the Ministry refused to give me the information. The next day, he handed me the full study.
Even though this report has been assigned by my chief editor, and upon recommendation from the committee that encouraged publishing reports criticising the government, it was never published. The excuse was that it might cause panic among citizens. I took the report to a monthly magazine that agreed to publish it, and it received a lot of attention. However, nothing has changed.
Dena’s tips to obtain information blocked by the government:
we realised through our contacts with public employees that some of them were dissatisfied with the situation and felt that concealing information was allowing corruption to continue
- Build your own network of contacts and look for sources willing to leak information: we realised through our contacts with public employees that some of them are dissatisfied with the situation and felt that concealing information was allowing corruption to continue and caused more damage to the country. In many cases, I obtained information from those employees and I managed to publish them in a foreign news agency that I used to work for in addition to my work with the local press.
- Confidentiality and source protection: Once, I went to see an official and I found a letter on his desk from the Ministry of Economy, encouraging Imams to call on merchants in their sermons to lower prices. I asked the official for a copy so I could publish it in the foreign news agency I was working for. At first, he vehemently refused but then I convinced him that I will conceal all information on the letter that indicates the source. In many cases, however, I decided not to publish sensitive information in order to protect my sources from accusations of treachery. In a meeting I attended in 2010, someone passed a document to me under the table about growth rates. It contradicted the figures announced by the Prime Minister in the same meeting. But of course, I couldn’t publish that one.
Hanan Khandagji (Jordan)
Jordan was one of the first Arab countries to pass a law in 2007 that guarantees access to information. However, this Law remains ink on paper.
According to the law, ministries and state departments should respond to a journalist’s request within 30 days. If they refuse to give him/her the requested information, that journalist has the right to appeal to the supreme court. Personally, I never thought of appealing because court procedures take time, which we journalists do not have.
some information might be available somewhere else!
During my time with Community Media Network in Amman, I submitted more than five requests for information from different ministries. They were all rejected on grounds that it was “confidential information”. In 2011, for instance, I requested statistics from the Ministry of Social Development about disabled people in Jordan. They said this data was not available. In other words, it was confidential. The wanted to know why I needed this information and how I was going to use it. But after they refused to give me this information, I approached the Central Bureau of Statistics, and there I found the same information that I was looking for. This is a fact that escapes many journalists; that some information might be available somewhere else! You can read my report here, in which I exposed the abuse of disabled people in care centres in Jordan.
One of the most pressing challenges to our access to information, in my opinion, is the mentality of government employees. They consider information as the sole property of the ministry, and they worry that giving this information to journalists would put them in trouble. Some employees don’t even know about the Access to Information Law, and would rather refer the journalist to their director instead of processing the request themselves. This, as a result, prolongs the process and delays our work, sometimes for months.
The main alternative in this case is to find sources within the ministry: employees who want to expose corruption in their bureaus. For example, I recently obtained over sixty unpublished official documents and financial reports proving corruption in a public institution in Jordan. I received them from a senior officer inside this institution, who felt he was treated unfairly and unequally. I reached this source through a common friend who works in the same institution. To win his trust, I made several visits to his office, and I had to constantly follow up for four months.
How did I build trust with him? I provided him with links of my previous reports and contacted him regularly to show my sincere interest in the issue. At the time, I was also working for a media outlet that was known for publishing important investigative reports, and that helped him understand the nature of our work and reassured him that we will not misuse the information he provides us with.
Hanan’s tips to obtain information blocked by the government:
A lazy journalist that does not like to read, misses golden opportunities to find stories and official data.
- Social media networks can be a source… for searching for more sources. It’s true that there is a lot of false or misleading information on social media. But it can also be a source for a lead because some people use them to expose information. One time, someone wrote a post on Facebook about corruption in a company he works for. Most probably he did so using a pseudonym, but what matters here is to have a lead and then start our own investigation. In 2016, for example, a Jordanian citizen published a photo on Facebook of a dairy product which was stamped with a date of production one day later than the day of purchase. I contacted this person, asked about the store and went there myself. Indeed, I found that all dairy products there had false production dates. We went to the dairy farm and discovered other health and environmental violations in addition to the forgery of dates. At the end we published a report about this.
- Keep in touch with private sources in the public institutes and build trust with them. They are the unknown soldiers and a journalist’s capital. They can provide information in indirect and unofficial ways.
- Look for information in other places, and don’t be lazy! In Jordan there is an Audit Bureau that monitors the accounts of governmental bodies. The Audit Bureau publishes an annual report that might exceed 2000 pages and includes all their monitoring data. This is huge amount of information that many journalists don’t realise! For example, two years ago, the annual report exposed huge financial improprieties in a certain institution. This has pushed me to work on an investigative report that has not been completed yet. A lazy journalist that does not like to read, misses golden opportunities to find stories and official data.