What does it take to support young Arab journalists?

Writers who want to tell stories of their own communities face challenges

An Egyptian man reads the daily Al-Ahram newspaper at a coffee shop in Cairo, Egypt. AP
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When I graduated from university, my first real job was as a journalist at this newspaper. I started out as a general reporter, dipping my feet into areas as diverse as schools, health, parking fees and food safety – the last being the crux of my first front-page story.

After a year on the general beat, I was assigned to stories around politics and foreign policy, like the Federal National Council, the Gulf Co-operation Council’s monumental decision to call for military intervention in Libya to halt the atrocities of Muammar Qaddafi, and sanctions against Iran.

As a recent graduate, I was terrified, obviously, to be covering topics of such heft. But I felt I was in my element, that this was what I was supposed to do and I was immensely grateful to the people who decided to give a fresh graduate a chance to prove himself.

I left The National and moved to the Netherlands for a couple of years before returning to the Middle East, to Lebanon, where I started working for a local English newspaper, the Daily Star.

Beirut was a gathering place for many international journalists who covered the war in Syria, and I hoped the job would eventually be a stepping stone to a career in international journalism. I had always dreamed of writing for The Guardian or The New York Times.

Families and relatives of victims of the 04 August Beirut port explosion carry empty coffins and portraits of the deceased relatives during a protest outside the house of Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi, in Beirut, Lebanon, July 13. EPA

I worked hard, covering stories that were tough on me mentally, including many suicide bombings, sectarian violence and refugee issues. The work was eventually noticed by fellow writers, and I reached out to those whose work I respected and who I wanted to learn from. Many of these initial contacts blossomed into lasting friendships, and even included finding a mentor and an older brother in Martin Chulov, The Guardian’s Middle East correspondent.

I also started receiving tentative offers from international newspapers operating in Beirut, except they did not want to hire me as a reporter; they wanted me to work as a “news assistant”, for a fraction of what correspondents earned. A news assistant is essentially a permanent fixer. They are often local journalists from the communities being reported on, who do the research, arrange interviews and translate for foreign correspondents, often at great risk to themselves in dangerous areas.

I once wrote to an editor at a global newspaper to inquire about a job as a Middle East reporter. He replied that I should not bother to apply for it and instead to try for the job of a news assistant. I decided not to, and a few months later was hired by The Guardian as a correspondent.

I once wrote to an editor at a global newspaper to inquire about a job as a Middle East reporter. He replied that I should not bother

As an Egyptian, I looked around and realised that there were not many young Arab journalists working with big international media outlets, with the exception of wire services such as Reuters and the Associated Press. News assistants who I talked to rarely managed to break into full-time reporting jobs. The situation may have improved since then, but it was a moment that helped me to understand the challenges that faced young writers, who wanted to tell stories of their own communities.

One solution to fix this gap is for international media outlets to invest more in training and hiring of young writers who start out as fixers for their organisations, to offer them an actual, viable path to employment, instead of relying on their labour to win awards and later casting them aside.

The other promising path forward is the emergence of independent Arab media organisations. The past few years have seen an influx of philanthropic and civil society money into the region to support fledgling independent media outlets that have grown out of the frustration at the loss of the Arab uprisings' potential. This is a path formed by those who eschew violence and still want to play a role in the development of their countries.

Over the past three years, since moving to Canada, I myself have been involved in different capacities with private Arab media organisations, and the energy there is palpable, the audience reception invigorating, and the sheer creativity and resilience is astounding. From longform essays to podcasts, reportage and investigations to satire, as well as fact-checking and combating disinformation, these organisations are helping to rebuild faith in the media as a force for good.

If young Arabs are to be given the chance to report on the stories of their own communities, such organisations should be empowered, or at least be allowed to continue to function unhindered. For, if that happens, the region will prosper and our societies will be healthier for it.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada

Published: July 15, 2021, 4:30 AM