Foto: Philipp Ammon

New senior reporter at BBC Arabic: “In journalism, my motivation is to stop people’s suffering’”

Ahmed Elshamy has only worked in journalism for almost ten years. In this relatively short period of time, he has gone from working as a freelance journalist in Cairo to becoming the new senior reporter at BBC Arabic. The network Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) has, according to Elshamy, been crucial for his career in investigative journalism.

On the fourth floor of the legendary Broadcasting House building in central London, only a few hundred metres from Oxford Circus, journalist Ahmed Elshamy apologises to his colleagues for bringing outside journalists into the editorial room.

“Are you already a star?,” one colleague teases, resulting in a shy smile on Ahmed’s face. He is clearly used to writing stories, but not being the subject of one.

More seriously, another colleague reminds him that it is important that no photos are taken that show reporters’ computer screens or desks filled with coffee mugs and papers.

We are in the editorial room of BBC Arabic, one of the biggest Arabic-language media in the world.

“It has been my ambition to work in these rooms for a long time,” Ahmed says.

To get to work for BBC Arabic in the heart of London is the dream of many Arab journalists. The dream only becomes a reality, however, for a few of them. Three months ago, 40-year-old journalist Ahmed Elshamy went from being a Cairo-based freelancer to being employed at BBC Arabic’s headquarters in London.

“When I read the email where they told me that they wanted to offer me the position, I couldn’t believe my own eyes. I had to read it one more time to make sure I had understood it correctly. It really was a dream come true,” he says.

Ahmed had good reason to be surprised. The BBC gets thousands of applications for positions at their London offices and the odds of landing one of them are slim.

Journalism should create better living standards

Ahmed’s journey into journalism started at the Helwan University where he studied political science. After he finished his education, he worked for a research institute for a few years. In 2011, he became interested in journalism after he started making smaller video productions in collaboration with local Egyptian media outlets.

He soon established contact with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) as well as other international organizations working with investigative journalism. And before long, Ahmed was hooked.

“My drive in journalism is simply to stop people’s suffering. To me, it is important that journalism is functional in creating better living standards for citizens. We must try to help stop their suffering, whether this suffering has roots in corruption, repression or abuse of power. That is what keeps me going. And that is why I have chosen this work,” Ahmed says.

Investigative journalism does not have deep roots in the Arab region. It mainly emerged from the satellite TV-channels that entered the media scene in the early 2000s and challenged the states’ media monopolies.

Arab journalists that choose to spend their lives doing investigative journalism still face enormous challenges. Exposing abuses of power, criminal offenses or corruption in the region consumes time and resources. Also, most Arab journalists have not been sufficiently trained in investigative journalism during their education and very few of them get real experience in the genre from newsrooms.

When Ahmed Elshamy first took an interest in investigative journalism, he had to look elsewhere to find the knowledge and the know-how.

“In 2011 I started looking for relevant fora and network that offered support and training for journalists. I needed to expand and develop my journalistic ‘toolbox’, so it would be up to date and so I could develop stories that resonate with the reader and that create change,” Ahmed says.

Finding the investigative journalism network

While Denmark has had an association for investigative journalists since the late 80s, the Arab world did not get its equivalent until 2005, when a dedicated group of Arab journalists established the network Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).

The network, which was started with support from the Danish-Arab Partnership Programme (DAPP) and International Media Support (IMS), began to reach out to those Arab journalists, who were interested in doing investigative journalism.

In 2008, the network organised the first forum for investigative journalism in the region. Since then, the forum has been held every other year and has become the most important meeting place for Arab journalists who want to keep updated on the newest trends, methods and stories relating to investigative journalism.

Besides organising the forum, ARIJ offers training in investigative journalism and provides legal and economic assistance to investigative reporters.

Ahmed Elshamy quickly found the ARIJ network.

“I got in touch with the founder of ARIJ Rana Sabagh and she has opened a lot of doors for me. Finding ARIJ has been crucial for my career: I was introduced to a new world where I got the opportunity to network with strong names within the field, and I got to participate in training and workshops that have made me the journalist I am today,” he says.

Ahmed remembers, in particular, one master class that ran over several weeks in 2014 and that focused on teaching participants how to produce investigative articles. Ahmed and the other participants were trained by world famous journalists like the American Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh.

“That course was a milestone in my journalistic development. When I look back now, I can clearly see how it helped raise the quality of my production,” Ahmed says.

And what he learned from the many talented journalists was quickly put to use.

“Immediately after the course I got an opportunity to make a documentary about incest within Egyptian society. It is a subject that is very much a taboo, and it is therefore hard to shed light on it if you do not have the necessary capabilities. However, with the tools I had gained from attending the course, I succeeded. The documentary set off a wide-ranging debate about the circumstances under which the victims of incest live, and it was shown in several countries. I also got seven prizes for that production,” Ahmed says.

The hard work

Doing investigative journalism entails many risks and challenges. It is therefore important that journalists keep themselves secure, both physically, and legally.

“ARIJ has contributed to my knowledge of the law and how I can obtain access to relevant documents from authorities. I have also learned how to protect myself and my sources, who should not be put in danger or have to experience more challenges because of my stories,” Ahmed says.

This knowledge proved to be important for Ahmed’s work going forward. At the end of 2018, he exposed how the Egyptian state had lost millions of dollars in taxes due to the large-scale smuggling of illegally copied cigarettes of the popular brand ‘Cleopatra’ into the country.

“I worked on that story for three years. We gathered documents and evidence from 11 different countries and met a lot of resistance. Here, I relied on the things I had learned from ARIJ and I used my many contacts within the network,” he says.

The state-owned Egyptian tobacco company, which produces the Cleopatra cigarettes, had failed to protect their brand, leading to massive losses in revenue to the state and raised questions about the company’s motives. But during Ahmed’s investigation, the company refused to talk to him. The company, presumably, did not believe that the articles would cause the stir that they in fact did.

When the first article in the series was published in one of Egypt’s biggest digital media outlets the company tried to halt the forthcoming articles, according to Ahmed.

“I think that they had not expected the stories to be so thorough and well-documented,” Ahmed says.

“Obviously, we didn’t budge, and we published all the rest of the articles. Our coverage resulted in the company’s stock falling and the Egyptian parliament initiating consultations on the subject,” Ahmed says.

“When I sat in the parliament and saw how the members discussed our stories, I couldn’t help but feel proud. This is journalism in a nutshell. You must keep believing that somewhere in the state apparatus there is at least one person who is willing to make the right decisions and to give journalism a chance to create change. It is always my hope that that person will be there somewhere. And that we journalists just have to do a great job.”

According to Ahmed, the story got a lot of media attention in Egypt and he was brought forward as a witness when the parliament had formed a committee to investigate the case. The investigation is ongoing and looks into the role and the agenda of the tobacco company.

Despite this achievement, Ahmed harbours no illusions about every one of his future stories making a difference. He recalls what the American journalist Jeremy Scahill told him during a conference in Italy: Journalists can use enormous amounts of resources producing strong stories that cover important topics, without them necessarily leading to any change or breakthrough. But Scahill also said that this should not discourage journalists from trying to reveal and investigate, because one day it will pay off.

Copenhagen a stop on the way to BBC

The Danish Broadcasting Corporation (Danmarks Radio) was for a short time, in 2015, Ahmed’s workplace. . The stay was organized by IMS and Ahmed was introduced to the Danish way of doing investigative journalism. He remembers the time as educational and full of inspiration.

“My days in Copenhagen were very intense and I got the opportunity to get an insight into Danish journalism. I noticed how the journalists typically had a beat, and that it was respected if you were specialized within a certain subject. My stay in Copenhagen gave me a better understanding of journalistic methods and how to use them,” he says.

Ahmed is reluctant to compare the circumstances that Danish and Arab journalists work under; however, he does see some obvious differences:

“In Denmark, it is relatively easy to gain access to information and documents. This is not the case in our region. On the other hand, I noticed that Danish journalists had a luxury problem: There weren’t enough interesting stories in Denmark, so they traveled abroad to make stories. It is safe to say that we do not have that issue in the Arab world. What we lack are competent and well-educated journalists and the resources to produce the important stories,” he says before continuing with a dogged optimism:

“As a journalist, sometimes you have to be grateful to be in a place where there are a lot of stories to dig into.”

The ideas are flowing in

Journalism in the Arab world is developing rapidly these years.  It has gotten easier and cheaper to publish articles and videos online. And there is competition – especially between the large TV stations – when it comes to hiring the best reporters to attract 400 million potential readers, viewers and listeners in the Arabic-speaking part of the world. BBC Arabic has a reach of over 40 million people each week.

These are the people that Ahmed will be producing stories for from now on, but it took a lot of work to get to where he is:

“My goal was to sit right here behind this desk in this building in London. I have achieved this goal. But it is a result of several years of hard work and intense focus, which was necessary to land a job at the BBC. The last two years I have spent studying their requirements and figuring out how to meet them,” Ahmed says.

Now he is excited to be here.

“I feel like we are a team: We complement each other well and we help bring each other’s stories forward. I feel like I am becoming familiar with the workflow and the tempo. We are very busy, but it doesn’t matter, because we are passionate about the work and I am sure we will succeed in producing some great investigative journalism,” he says.

Ahmed cannot say anything about the stories that he and his colleagues are working on, but he does mention one project that he is excited about. In October, BBC made an open call-out, where Arab journalists from all over the region were encouraged to share their ideas for investigative articles and documentaries. Ahmed will be managing the project and has already received many ideas. It thrills the BBC newcomer and he hopes that he and his colleagues will be able to realize most of them.

Wants to help other young Arab journalists

In the middle of London, more than 2,000 kilometers away from his home country, Ahmed has not forgotten all the support he has gotten from ARIJ. At the end of November, he will once again be participating in the ARIJ Forum in Amman, Jordan, alongside 500 other reporters, editors etc. – mainly from the Arab world. Here, they will discuss the future of their field in a time filled with challenges.

“When I look back, I can only feel immense gratitude and joy because I have made it this far. And I would very much like to help other young Arab journalists the way I was helped,” he says.

Back in Cairo his parents are proud of their son’s achievements.

“My family is happy for me. But they are also worried, because I have travelled so far away from home. They have supported me through it all and I have a lot of work ahead of me to continue to make them proud,” he says.

When Ahmed was hired to work for BBC, the title on his resume swiftly changed and he is now considered to be one of the absolute heavyweights in his field. However, his motivation is the same as it has been since he first started doing journalism. That motivation can be summed up by a quote that Ahmed stumbled upon in the credits at the end of some movie. It is by the British philosopher Edmund Burke. It goes:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”

“In my eyes, evil can materialize itself as corruption, abuse of power, or other actions that will increase people’s suffering. That is why I must believe that any good deed – even if it is small and is made up words – will one day make a difference,” Ahmed says.