About 15 minutes along a highway at 10:00 at night, in a taxi just after arriving in Jordan, I was jarred out of jet-lag by the exit sign for a turnoff, in Arabic and English: ″Iraqi border″ and, under that, ″Syrian border.″ A two-hour drive to the northeast, Iraq was still seething violently from the American invasion; due north was the brutal civil war in Syria, a conflict triggered partially by the impacts of the drought intensified by climate change, and from which as many as a thousand people a day flee into Jordan’s hastily assembled refugee camps. We sped past. About five minutes later, coming into focus through the darkness alongside the highway, a long rectangular building with huge block letters painted on it in strangely familiar blue and yellow, “IKEA.”
War to the left of me, furniture to the right, these two contrasting images seemed somehow emblematic of Jordan, sketched from the desert by the British in 1921 and promptly handed to a local monarch. Now it’s a relatively stable redoubt in the region with the backing of foreign aid from the United States and other Western governments. Of all the Gulf countries, Jordan has by far the closest relations with the U.S. and Europe, a Western educated elite, and a middle class with a taste for the accouterments — even while it’s consistently swept into the conflicts that rage across one of the planet’s most volatile regions.
A day later, at our opening session, the journalists introduced themselves, and it was striking to hear of the common interests they share with their distant peers in the U.S. The struggle with violent fundamentalists hangs over every country in the region to varying degrees, for secular and religious Muslims alike, but what’s at least equally if not more potent on a daily basis is the threat of environmental degradation and the predations of climate change. Like journalists everywhere, they want to understand it, explain it to their readers, point to those responsible, and help indicate how to stop it.
There’s the journalist in Jordan who’s been investigating the polluted river-water in Zarqa, the city’s third-largest city, where the water is so tainted from local industries that it’s unusable for farmers and residents who live in the environs. There’s the Bahraini studying the cocktail of chemical effluents from factories there, and the cluster of cancers in surrounding neighborhoods; and the Tunisian writing about the impact of accumulating piles of old batteries leaking cadmium, mercury, and other toxins in the capital of Tunis. Both the Egyptian and Tunisian journalists spoke, independently, of what turns out to be a common concern, the disappearance of native seed varieties in North Africa as global seed companies come to dominate those markets.
And let’s drop for a moment into Palestine, a place where our view is shaped almost entirely by reporting on violent clashes with Israel. Inside Palestine, meanwhile, journalists are attempting to carve out an independent space to report honestly and thoroughly on the environmental challenges they face.
“Professionalism is the antidote to working in these kinds of regimes.”
Firas Taweel, a TV and radio journalist with the AyjaL Radio Network, is probing into the health impact of diesel fuel pollution emitted by Palestine’s trucks and cars. Ruba Anabtawi Alloun, a writer for Afaq Environmental Magazine, affiliated with BirZeit University, has been investigating illegal logging by Palestinians and Israeli settlers inside one of the few protected forests of Palestine.
Then there was the reporting feat accomplished by Maha Al-Bidiny, an independent journalist based in Cairo, who set off on her own to reveal the impact of fracking’s expansion into rural Egypt, and the toxins released into the water supply of Egyptian farms. She had returned to the fields 19 times to convince the workers to allow a woman — her — to visit the sites that had been flooded with polluted waste water.
But while similarities in subject matter abound, and reporting strategies can be replicated, it’s much harder to practice journalism in the Middle East than in the U.S. Many of the journalists I met are operating in a journalistic context that had opened, briefly, in the wake of the Arab Spring, but then closed.
Tunisia remains the major exception. According to Meriam Khadraoui, an editor and reporter at the Tunisian Press Service, there has been a flowering of independent press since the revolution in 2011. Before then, she recalled, her journalism was forcibly limited to writing mostly “stupid stories about nothing.” Now she’s starting up a team to do in-depth, investigative projects at the agency.
The rest of the Arab-speaking world, though, remains one of the most dangerous places to pursue journalism, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Certainly the reporters who pass through ARIJ are trying to navigate through a thorny journalistic space, and to respond to a population that, according to almost every one of the journalists, is becoming more environmentally aware and concerned. That space contracts and at times expands. Independent newspapers in Egypt and Jordan, as well as pan-Arab publications based in Lebanon and London, are at the forefront of testing, with “elegance,” the boundaries of what is officially acceptable.
“Sometimes,” says Rana Sabbagh, “there are imaginary lines in your brain. You have to push the boundaries to see where they are…. The main thing is to keep pushing, and get the facts right. Professionalism is the antidote to working in these kinds of regimes.”
ARIJ also provides critical assistance, such as legal review of stories published under its purview; and, in some instances, assisting with publication in one of several Arab news outlets overseas, such as al Hayat, a pan-Arab daily based in Lebanon, and Alaraby Aljadeed, based in London, if the story is deemed too dangerous to publish at home.
As the Columbia Journalism Review recently expressed it, “a community of Arab investigative reporters exists even when it shouldn’t.” Environmental reporting is still relatively new to the region, and until now has been broadly limited to identifying sources of pollution but not necessarily the people responsible. What may lie ahead, however, is sobering: Journalists who have pursued corruption and human rights abuses, or who critique government policy, can find themselves under threat, imprisoned, or deported. In Egypt this June, one of the country’s top TV journalists was fired after an ally of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took over the station where she worked, and shortly thereafter deported back to her home country of Lebanon. Even relatively mild criticism of the government in Egypt can lead to dismissal, loss of a passport, or imprisonment. In other countries, the pressure can range from subtle — a discreet call to an editor — to more heavy-handed, as it’s been in Egypt and Bahrain, both of which have imprisoned numerous journalists. The boundaries for environmental journalism are still being tested, and the journalists I met in Jordan will no doubt be at the forefront of finding out where they are.