Thursday, June 2, 2016

The online platform Inkyfada for investigative journalism in Tunisia was one of hundreds of media organisations that took part in the Panama Papers investigations. Hours after the collective publication, on the 3rd of April 2016, the website was hacked. Erige Sehiri, co-founder of the platform speaks about the rising popularity of Inkyfada. 

“It’s a dream project”, says Erige Sehiri, when asked what Inkyfada is about. Sehiri is a filmmaker, producer and co-founder of the very slick and modern looking website. This is not your usual “quick and dirty” Wordpress platform, but a genius product of a cooperation between journalists, developers and designers. 

“The thing we had in common as the founders, is that we wanted to think through the question of what journalism should be about. And that is a dream in Tunisia. Only a few years ago this was unimaginable, since we were at the start of the revolution and very busy with all that was going on: demonstrations against journalism and fighting for our basic human rights. It was hard to be creative, to take time. And that is the heart of the project: to think, to analyse, go deeply into society and address its problems.

Inkyfada wants to be as independent as possible. How does this land in a society that is not yet accustomed with investigative and critical journalism?
People expect us to be independent. They say: "we need more Inkyfada's." Also on the web. For a long time we assumed that people are not willing anymore to spend more than two minutes reading something online. But our web statistics prove otherwise: our visitors can spend 10 to 15 minutes on an article. Tunisian people want to read, especially investigations. 

Some people say that Inkyfada is an elitist platform. Is that true?

Well, the audience does not expect fast food, but a detailed painting of Tunisian society. Most readers speak French and have an intellectual background, but as we translate more and more content into Arabic, we see a growing number of visitors that are from Tunisia. Next to the investigative articles, we also bring human interest stories. In our section 'pocket money' we portray random people who talk about what they earn and how they spend it. Indirectly we go deeper into society, but in a very light way. 
In general, we try to be more connected with our audience. Making quality content takes time to make and to think. We want to be as creative as possible. In general, our approach is to co-build our collective memory: in six months the stories should still be relevant.

Erige Sehiri by Jeppe Schilder
Erige Sehiri. Photo: Jeppe Schilder

How did Inkyfada become involved with the Panama Papers?
In 2015, Inkyfada already worked on the Swiss Leaks. Early 2016 we were approached to work on the Panama Papers and started the research, to find Tunisian stories. Inkyfada was the only Tunisian media to be part of ICIJ since the Swiss Leaks and therefore, for the Panama Papers, we were naturally in charge of the Tunisian part of the investigation, within the framework of a collaboration involving more than one hundred media outlets in the world.

We did find some names of Tunisian citizens. Some of them live abroad, some of them in Tunisia. Because every individual we found had its specific context, we did not want to reveal any names and make accusations. We did not want to reveal a list of names, without allowing the people cited in the Panama Papers to be confronted with the information we found. That was not our goal. We wanted to reveal a bigger situation. 

The first name we found was actually a politician, Mohsen Marzouk, (who was campaign director of the current president of the republic). He had requested an account for an offshore company in Panama, during the elections. Someone criticized us and said: if you cannot accuse him, there is no story, you don’t know for a fact if he indeed opened the account or not. But for us, the fact that he asked for it, during the elections, is already a story. It raises a moral issue: can someone who wants to serve in the interest of Tunisian society and who lives in Tunisia move a part of his financial business outside that society? We already face corruption and now Tunisia participates in something like this. That is the debate we wanted to trigger.

Of course we tried to interview this politician. But he didn’t answer and then he went on tv and accused us of lying. A psychologist could make an interesting case of this: a politician is doing something dubious, and the messenger is being blamed for it.

So all the sudden Inkyfada itself became news?
Yes, that is the irony. Suddenly everyone was asking about what is this Inkyfada thing? A national tv crew came to our office. They wanted to know why we did not publish a complete list, or why we decided to publish about this specific politician. Some were upset, perhaps because they wanted Marzouk to be the next president. We did not expect this would be so overwhelming, because, in our minds, we were doing ethical journalism. We didn’t make accusations, but presented only facts, in order to debate the moral question around these offshore companies. 

The site was also attacked by hackers, wasn’t it?
Yes, and we were the only one of all the other 100 media organisations. It happened in the night after the publications on April 4rd. We woke up and there was the cover and the lead of an article on the website that wasn’t ours. It was really well done, but the one mistake they made was that it was written in Arabic, while the two people working on the Panama Papers never write in Arabic. So it was easy to proof that this item wasn’t ours. 

What was the general reaction of the audience to your Panama Papers publications?
The audience is waiting for the res! We had a lot of response on social media. Our page was liked more than 10.000 times in only two days. People actually seem to be concerned and they want to see a list of more names. But we explained that such a list does not exist, that the Panama Papers are a stack of 11.5 million documents. And we continued to release our investigations of the people on whom we had concrete elements and always after making the confrontations. We did not want to respond to the pressure and work at our own pace, to avoid making mistakes.

We also tried to convey that for us, it’s not about people having or not having an off shore account, but that we want to debate the financial and economic system and how, in Tunisia, we are part of that system too. Us having access to to these documents and do something about it means to be part of that debate.

What do you think is the long term impact for Inyfada?
Thanks to the attention on national tv, we are now much more well known and we are happy with that. People are curious about us and now expect us to do more investigations. 

I think Tunisia is in the middle of a turning point and that we are contributing to more awareness about the importance of investigative journalism. People are fed up with papers that keep bringing the same story about how there is corruption in Tunisia. With Inkyfada, we try to investigate the consequences of that corruption and how it affects everyone in a society. The short term impact of our articles may not be big. What we do hopefully has an effect on the long term, to invest time in doing quality journalism, that make people accountable for their actions.

Inkyfada is a platform initiated by Free Press Unlimited's partner Alkhatt in Tunisia.
Check out their articles on the Panama Papers.