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Covering corruption, coups, and war crimes in the Middle East

ICIJ’s Cairo-based investigative reporter Maggie Michael talks about the challenges of unearthing secrets and atrocities in a region where threats to press freedom abound.

In nearly two decades as a journalist covering the Middle East and North Africa, Maggie Michael has learned a few things.

For Michael — a Cairo-based reporter for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — one lesson stands out above all others.

Never assume that people can’t or won’t talk to you — even about sensitive subjects such as corruption or war crimes.

“You can’t assume they’re not going to talk to you,” she said. “You can’t assume anything.”

In 2017, when she was working for The Associated Press, Michael talked her way into a detention site in war-ravaged southern Yemen where sources told her prisoners were being tortured. She persuaded the superintendent of the lockup to give her and a video journalist a tour.

A year later, sources told her Emirati officers at “black sites” in Yemen were using sexual assault as part of their torture techniques. She found a way to surreptitiously interview seven inmates still on the inside and arranged for them to smuggle out letters and stunning drawings of torture scenes. An inmate used blue and black ink to draw on scraps of Styrofoam plates, showing scenes of snarling attack dogs and sexual abuse. The Arabic caption on one: “Naked after beating.”

This kind of persistence — which helped Michael and two other AP journalists win a 2019 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting — is necessary in a part of the world where press freedom is severely limited.

In most of the region, Michael said, “you have the same barriers. You have, first, journalists seen as troublemakers, spies, biased, working for some political party against other parties. The second is the decline in resources — there is very little done to invest in the press.”

Journalists in the Middle East and North Africa face death threats from militias, and intimidation and arrests from governments that won’t tolerate a free and unbossed press. Authorities raid newsrooms, block online news sites and shut down publications that print what officials call “false news.”

As of December, there were at least 89 journalists jailed in 10 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a global advocacy group. That’s the highest number for the region since CPJ began counting in 1992. Egypt jailed 27 journalists in 2020, CPJ found, making it the third worst jailer of journalists in the world, behind China and Turkey.

“It’s becoming regular news that you have journalists who have been arrested or disappear,” Michael said. “They show up later in court facing  allegations of affiliation with terrorist groups.”

Many are detained for years without trials.

Michael notes that because she’s worked at international news organizations for most of her career — more than 15 years at AP and, since February, at ICIJ — she hasn’t faced the same level of pressure faced by journalists working at local and national publications across the region.

“You have a little bit of protection,” she said, if you work for a news outlet that has the ability to bring international scrutiny onto a government’s treatment of journalists.

Still, she said, even reporters working in the region for AP and other international media can face intimidation, violence, sexual assault and other traumas.

Michael herself endured some chilling episodes. During the Arab Spring protests in Egypt a decade ago, plainclothes security officers attacking protesters pushed her to the ground and kicked her with their boots. InLibya, a taxi driver  locked the doors and drove to a remote area, then tried to grab her phone and said “give me everything you have”. She bit his hand, unlocked the door and ran away yelling for help.

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‘Rabbit holes’

Growing up in Egypt, Michael became interested in journalism at a young age. Her family’s home was filled with the newspapers her parents loved to read.

In her early teens, the years of Hosni Murbarak’s autocratic rule in Egypt, she was inspired by newspaper investigations of wrongdoing in government and business. News control in the country was tight enough that media outlets didn’t take on the government directly, she says, but they had a green light to report on some forms of corruption within the country.

Michael got a journalism degree from The American University in Cairo, then worked about two years as a freelance writer and TV news producer before joining the AP in 2002.

At the wire service, she spent more than a decade as a news reporter covering street protests, news conferences, elections, military coups and other big stories in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and other countries. In 2015, she covered the beginnings of Yemen’s devastating civil war from afar, in the AP’s Middle East bureau in Cairo, working the phones, monitoring social media and TV newscasts and taking feeds from AP correspondents on the ground.

It was a complicated conflict: a Saudi-led, U.S.-backed military coalition fought in the air, land and sea to push back the Houthis, an Islamist political and military movement that had seized control of territory that was home to most of Yemen’s population. Al-Qaida militants formed another power base within Yemen. And the country’s vast web of tribes and local militias further complicated things.

Michael wanted to dig deeper. She wanted to put boots on the ground and learn about Yemen and its war first hand. Unable to get permission from AP to travel to Yemen, where the dangers for journalists were exceptionally high, she took a six-month leave of absence and went to Yemen on her own, writing freelance articles for the London Review of Books, Foreign Affairs and other publications.

She paid her own travel expenses and the freelance payments she received were small. At one point, she said, she ran out of money and had to call her father and ask him to buy her a plane ticket so she could get out of Yemen and return home to Cairo.

But it was worth the struggle, Michael said. She got the soil of Yemen under her feet and was able to talk to people in many parts of the country — tribal leaders, militia commanders, human rights activists, lawyers, regular people shopping in local marketplaces.

She learned the hospitality and kindness of Yemenis. Even people with little food insisted on feeding her and making her tea. And she learned about the suffering that the war brought them.

“They say in the media they targeted a military camp,” Hammoud Abdullah, a Yemeni who’d lost four brothers in an airstrike by the U.S.-backed coalition, told her. “But what happened is they have killed our children.”

Another Yemeni, Yahia Hatroom, showed her the tiny underground room where he, his wife, his mother and ten children took refuge from sunrise to sunset.

“We live in rabbit holes now,” he said.

make the dangerous overland trek through war-torn Yemen to seek jobs in Saudi Arabia.  Image: Nariman El-Mofty.

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‘Impunity and fear’

Michael returned to her job at the AP in 2016 and was able to spend more time in Yemen as she reported a series of stories about the civilians killed in the coalition’s aerial attacks. By 2017, though, she decided to leave the AP and take a job as a researcher at a human-rights organization.

But then Trish Wilson, the AP’s international investigations editor at the time, intervened and got Michael the OK to return to Yemen and pursue a story she’d been pitching for months — an investigation of torture inside detention centers that were being run by operatives from the United Arab Emirates, one of the key players in the multinational coalition fighting the Houthi rebels.

Wilson told her: “Go right now.”

Michael’s reporting revealed that hundreds of men had vanished in the network of secret prisons inside military bases, ports, an airport, private villas and even a nightclub. The torture included such horrors as the “grill” — a victim tied to a spit like a roast and spun over a blazing fire.

U.S. defense officials told AP that American forces had taken part in interrogations of detainees at locations in Yemen, providing questions for others to ask and receiving transcripts of interrogations from Emirati allies, but said senior military leaders were satisfied that there had not been any abuse when U.S. forces were present.

Wilson was impressed by Michael’s relentlessness — and by her lack of swagger.

“She’s very quiet. She’s very modest,” Wilson, now an editor at the Washington Post, said. “And she gets the story every fucking time.”

After the torture story won an award from the Overseas Press Club of America, Michael pleaded with her editors: Instead of spending money on flying her to New York for a fancy prize ceremony, could she use the money to head back to Yemen? AP editors told her she could do both — attend the ceremony and make extended forays into Yemen.

With help of a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Michael made four trips through Yemen in 2018, crisscrossing the country with two other team members, video journalist Maad al-Zikry and photographer Nariman El-Mofty.

Reporting on the war in Yemen was challenging because of the murkiness of battle lines and politics. Factions that fought each other one day might join on another day to attack a common enemy. Simply moving from one urban neighborhood or village to another could mean a change in who is in charge ― and who might represent a danger.

Journalists reporting in Yemen work in what CPJ calls “a climate of impunity and fear.” Many sources wouldn’t talk to Michael on the phone due to concerns about surveillance. To meet face-to-face with key sources, Michael, El-Mofty and al-Zikry often had to make 10- to 14-hour treks, driving through no man’s lands shadowed by attack drones and facing tense scenes at militia checkpoints.

The team leaned heavily on each other. Every trip had to be meticulously planned, weighing concerns for the safety of the journalists and their sources. On multiple occasions, the trio had to decamp from a village where they were doing interviews when they heard a local militia had learned of their presence.

Ultimately they produced a slew of powerful text, photo and video stories — what the Pulitzer Prize Board described as “a revelatory yearlong series detailing the atrocities of the war in Yemen, including theft of food aid, deployment of child soldiers and torture of prisoners.”

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‘You never know’

Now at ICIJ, Michael continues to report from her home in Cairo, which she shares with her teenage daughter and 15 cats, a feline pack that has sometimes multiplied while she’s been away on reporting trips.

Despite her awards and successes, she knows it’s important for her to be constantly learning new things and improving her skills.

She says she decided to move over to ICIJ in part because she wanted to supplement her shoe-leather reporting by stepping up her game in terms of using documents and data analysis — ICIJ specialties. She’s also excited to be collaborating with the hundreds of partner journalists, from more than 100 news outlets around the world, who work on ICIJ’s global investigations.

You have to speak to so many people, listen to so many stories. You never know what’s going to happen.— Maggie Michael

But she has learned from experience — and from other journalists she’s worked with — that the best journalism is, at its core, about old-fashioned tenacity.

If a source doesn’t return phone calls or texts, she doesn’t give up. She keeps writing and dialing, or finds someone else who will vouch for her with the source — even the source’s mother if necessary.

Or she will simply show up at the source’s home or office — even if that means making a long, dusty journey to get there.

Sometimes, she said, you have to be willing to listen to lots of people tell similar stories over and over, knowing that they may add a detail that you’ve never heard before, or will put you in touch with someone else who can help take your reporting in a new direction.

“You have to knock on a lot of doors,” she said. “You have to speak to so many people, listen to so many stories. You never know what’s going to happen.”

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By Michael Hudson, May 3, 2021, published on ICIJ

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