She is a 27 years old, investigative journalist and receives death threats. But Wafa Arouri is not afraid to oppose those in power.
She is standing in front of the Palestinian Ministry of Finance and Planning with a megaphone in her hand. For a long time, Wafa Arouri, a journalist for Wattan TV, has been trying to get Shokri Bishara and Majdi Al Hassan to speak. They are the Finance and Planning Minister and Director of the Petroleum Authority respectively.
“Sir Majdi, I am a journalist and I have been trying to get you to talk with me for two months now, but all the doors are closed. I need answers, give me the information I want!” she shouts.
The sand-colored ministry is surrounded by a wall with a black gate. The uniformed men who guard the ministry are walking back and forth. It seems like they do not quite know what to do with the shouting, young woman who demands to speak to the authorities.
Finally, one of them comes over to Wafa Arouri, “I really don’t know if what you’re doing is legal or not,” he says.
Wafa Arouri explains the situation to him.
“We want answers. If the authorities do not want to give an interview, that’s fine, we have no problem with that. But please give us an answer,” says Wafa Arouri.
Inspiration from Al Jazeera
Wafa Arouri has known that she wanted to be a journalist since she was a child. She was never nervous when talking in front of her classmates. In fact, she never had trouble speaking out loud in public, and that led her teachers to often tell her that she should become a journalist.
“During that period (year 2008, ed.) there was war in Gaza. I saw an Al Jazeera journalist reporting from the area and it really caught my attention. He told viewers what was going on in Gaza and about the many children that were killed. It was in that moment I decided to become a journalist. I wanted to tell people what was going on in conflict areas,” says Wafa Arouri.
She chose to study media, journalism and social studies at Birzeit University, just outside Ramallah. It was also at the university that Wafa Arouri first came in to contact with Wattan TV, a major television station in Palestine, which also broadcasts radio and publishes articles online. On her last semester, she was chosen to complete a three-month internship at the television station. When the course was over, she was hired in a permanent position.
Today, Wafa Arouri has several roles at Wattan TV. In addition to being a reporter herself, she is the editor of the program series ‘Wattan in the field’ and responsible for the 15 journalists in the West Bank and Gaza working on the series. She also has her own program, ‘Marginalized Voices’, and in addition, Wafa Arouri is an investigative journalist working on stories that can take months to finish.
Course in investigative journalism
When Wafa Arouri is embarking on an investigative story, she delves completely into the story to uncover every part of it.
“I think it is a cool type of journalism. Because we get more and better information about a case when we approach it in an investigative way. The stories are often very important to the Palestinian people and have a direct impact on their lives,” says Wafa Arouri.
In the spring of 2018, Danish teachers from International Media Support, in collaboration with the Media Development Center at Birzeit University, completed a course in investigative journalism – supported by The Danish House of Palestine. The goal was to provide Palestinian journalists with specific tools for research, data collection and interview techniques they can use to tackle difficult, sensitive and important stories.
Wafa Arouri was one of the ten journalists who participated in the course.
“I did investigative journalism before I took the course, but it was a very important course for me because it really evolved me as an investigative journalist,” says Wafa Arouri, noting that she learned, among other things, how to make a plan for her work before she really gets going.
It was also an investigative project that eventually got Wafa Arouri to stand in front of the Ministry of Finance and Planning with a megaphone in her hand in September 2019.
With megaphone in hand
In 2007, a gas station exploded in the city of Al-Bireh in the West Bank, the neighboring town of Ramallah. Eight people, including children, died in the accident. In 2012, another gas station exploded, this time in Ramallah, no people were killed, but several were injured and had burns.
Wafa Arouri says that many gas stations in the West Bank have been built without permission from the Palestinian Authority, or are built in the wrong way. At worst, this could lead to explosions like those in 2007 and 2012 because the gas stations do not meet a number of safety rules. Still, authorities are doing nothing to remove the illegal gas stations.
“I tried to gather as much information as possible before going to the responsible authorities. I contacted the ministry, which is responsible for the gas stations, but they did not respond. I tried again and again and again, but they still would not talk to me,” says Wafa Arouri.
However, the megaphone got things going. That morning back in November 2019 in Ramallah, her voice was finally heard. Wafa Arouri was invited inside behind the tall, sand-colored walls, where she finally got to talk to Majdi Al Hassan, director of the Petroleum Authority. However, with the cameras turned off.
“He said to me, ‘I am sorry, I know you want information and that you have been trying for months to get it, but I cannot give it to you.’ So I chose to stop my story here because I didn’t could get any further,” says Wafa Arouri.
On Majdi Al Hassan’s request, she gave the authorities another ten days to give her an answer to the request for an interview. However, when the ten days had passed she had still not heard from them.
Today, Wafa Arouri interprets the authorities’ lack of response as a sign that they are hiding something from her and the public.
Journalist in prison
The fact that Wafa Arouri cannot speak to the authorities is just one of many obstacles she experiences as a journalist.
“As a Palestinian journalist, I feel like I am in prison. I’m afraid of the Palestinian Authority because they might try to stop me from doing my job, and I am afraid of the occupation because they might throw me in jail or even kill me,” says Wafa Arouri.
And then there are also the social norms that keep her from reporting on specific topics, such as religion, because it is so sensitive to many people.
Also the social norms make it difficult for Wafa Arouri to do her job just because she is a woman.
“I am a strong woman, but I am still “just” a woman. They do not have to actually kill me, they just have to use Photoshop and publish a photo of me looking as if I am naked. Posting such photo online would have huge consequences for me as it would destroy my personal and professional reputation,” says Wafa Arouri.
And when all that is mentioned, there are still the death threats that Wafa Arouri occasionally gets.
For example, when she made a story about a sick, elderly woman living alone. Wafa Arouri had been contacted by the woman’s worried neighbors who asked if she could do anything to help the woman. With camera in hand, Wafa Arouri went to talk to her.
She got the interview and it was published soon after.
“On the same day, one of the woman’s sons contacted me and said that if I did not take down the story, he would kill me. We met at Wattan to discuss what to do and decided to delete the story because of the death threats,” says Wafa Arouri.
But even though the interview was removed, Wafa Arouri still feels that she made a difference in the specific situation.
“The family realized that they were not doing enough for their mother and grandmother and that they should help her cook and get medicine,” says Wafa Arouri, adding:
“Of course, I think I make a difference. Those responsible would not be held accountable at all if not for investigative journalism. Sometimes investigative journalism makes a difference. Not all the time, but sometimes I make a difference.”
In the fall of 2019, The Danish House in Palestine, through International Media Support, has supported again the work of educating Palestinian journalists in investigative journalism. In October, Danish investigative journalist Henrik Jensen from one of the leading national newspapers, Berlingske, along with Jordanian-Palestinian journalist Rawan Damen, who for many years produced documentaries for, among others, Al-Jazeera and the BBC, completed the course with 13 young journalists attending. The focus was on digging up hidden information, fact-checking and confronting those in power – much like Wafa Arouri.