In the past few days, unidentified social media users launched a campaign under the headline “Soros’s Agents” claiming to uncover a media network funded by the Jewish billionaire Georges Soros.
The “Free Patriotic Movement’s” television channel, OTV (a mouthpiece for President Michel Aoun’s movement and his ally Hezbollah,) had paved the way for this campaign, which aims at discrediting the Lebanese revolution by accusing it of being stirred by foreign embassies and financed by external sources. Daraj was one of the media institutions targeted by this campaign.
As an editorial policy, we do not usually engage in this type of demagoguery. Our credibility and transparency speak for us against any calumny or accusation. In fact, the campaign referenced the very material we ourselves publish.
However, as Daraj is celebrating its second anniversary, we want to use this opportunity to tell our readers why and how Daraj came into being.
How it all started
“You are crazy,” is an expression we heard from many prior to launching Daraj on 1 November 2017.
Our project seemed like a mad adventure to some, and this certainly has some truth to it. But we were consumed by more urgent matters: our passion for journalism, our frustration with the ever-tightening constrictions on our media institutions, our deep conviction that our excellent journalists need a platform that honors their freedom and ambitions, and, most importantly, our unshakeable belief in the dire need of the Arab world for independent journalism, in an era where the mainstream media, of which we ourselves were part, are playing a negative role, and the Arab Spring in which we believe has been derailed off its course.
The rise of digital journalism and its changing market, the main result of which was the drop in production costs, provided additional incentives for us to proceed with our project.
In the summer that preceded the launch, we were exhausted and a little despondent, but never hopeless. Hence, the name Daraj, “stairway,” which stands for what we meant this project to be: a professional and independent journalism that is a passageway from the miserable reality we live in into a better future.
We thought a lot about our motto, “The Third Story,” that story that no-one, in the heavily divisive government-funded media, wants to tell, produce or disseminate.
Journalists, writers, photographers, artists, lawyers, technicians, and economists, all generously pitched in with their time, expertise, passion, and imagination and united to make the project succeed.
Our approach was simple, but in actual fact, we were beset by challenges that threatened to nip our project in the bud.
Our basic conviction was and still is that there is no journalism without freedom, no freedom without financial independence, and no financial independence without a strategy.
Initially, the plan was to finance Daraj as a start-up via venture capital funds. So we registered Daraj as a for-profit company, with Beirut as its headquarters.
Contentwise, our goal was to produce serious journalism in keeping with our values on the one hand, in addition to generating commercial content that would secure our financial independence without compromising our principles, on the other.
Our strategy took into account the market’s increasing demand for content. Arabic is the fastest-growing language online, and while Arab users constitute about six percent of the international online audience, only two percent of digital content is in Arabic, and most of it is irrelevant to Arab youth’s interests and needs.
Endless opportunities, then.
But many challenges, too.
The journalism we believe in is costly and cannot be profitable, because it targets those in power and is mainly driven by the desire to hold them accountable for their actions, and therefore it poses a threat to their interests. In our region, this translates into an impossible relationship with local corporations and traditional advertisers, which makes the prospect of commercial success difficult, if not impossible.
So from the very beginning, we had to come up with alternative sources of revenue. Investors are bent on getting their money back and not without a reasonable profit, whereas we soon realized that our refusal to compromise on content quality would slow down profitability.
We almost gave up, but we had already invested way too much time, effort, love and faith into this adventure, and had involved way too many people with us, that giving up was out of the question.
We tried instead to focus on our strong points, our experience in the field, for example, and the caliber of our target audience.
We did not invent the wheel. We just looked at the changes that journalism was undergoing worldwide, and gleaned ideas that fit our project before setting to work on various levels.
The rise of populism and fake news on the international scene was paralleled by a demand for independent media, whether supported by international organizations or funded exclusively by users and readers.
Media Part in France and De Correspondents in Holland were a case study for us. Both organizations are founded by journalists who, like us, worked for years in mainstream media before venturing into independent journalism. So the concept was there. We had no doubt that it was doable in our region, and that there is a demand for it, but providing proof of concept was key before a full launch, and for that we needed to secure more funding, as our own personal resources began to dry up after one year.
Conspiracy theorists will find in what followed a treasure-trove of proofs of our “collaboration” with foreign networks. For we built, over the years, relations with colleagues and friends all around the world that allowed us to move forward and develop our editorial and financial strategies. They got excited about our project, and many volunteered material for our pilot. This validated our conviction that Daraj is needed as a platform that publishes its own exclusive material, but also other valuable content from various sources for the Arab reader, whether locally produced, or in Tunis, Iraq, Yemen or any other country.
The Positive Response of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)
Our collaboration on the “Paradise Papers” project gave us a special moral boost but it also put us under enormous pressure as the report was set to be published on 5 November 2017. That is why we decided to launch Daraj on 1 November of that year, and we did.
To make that happen, we worked around the clock, producing content, developing and designing our website, and continuing to raise funds.
The easiest way to start was to resort to our experience as documentarians. So we produced a series of documentaries, the rights of which we sold, and invested our fees into Daraj.
Our supportive Arab friends who had preceded us into the space of independent media that is backed by international organizations, such as the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) in Jordan of which we are now a part, made the necessary introductions to connect us with international organisms.
The big conspiracy was thus born!
We established relations with International Media Support in Copenhagen, the European Endowment for Democracy in Brussels, and Open Societies Foundations in New York, after months of hard work filling applications and preparing complicated budgets.
Apart from respect for democratic values, the only other condition those organizations set forth was financial transparency, especially that we would be receiving taxpayers’ money. We would be audited by an independent, internationally certified Lebanese company.
This eventually proved to be great as it forced us, from the very start, to organize our financial and legal affairs in a professional manner. Two years later, our company’s accounts are open to whoever desires to look at them.
We are a company that pays its employees, pays its taxes, and is working toward total financial independence within 5 years.
We started with a team of five full-time employees, and 30 freelance journalists. Now we are 12, and we work with over 300 journalists from more than 40 cities around the world.
We have nothing to hide about our terms of agreements with international organizations. Foreign funding is not a crime. No law prohibits it. And nothing about it compromises any of our principles.
We share the same goals and values with these organizations which do not harbor any secret agenda or conspiracies to destroy societies. Their values are clearly stated on their websites, and available in Arabic, too.
Still, one may ask, shouldn’t we be vigilant about any hidden agenda? Surely we should! And the way we practice vigilance is simply by never producing content against our principles, nor spreading values we do not believe in.
We are confident in what we do. Our experience and background created trust with colleagues from those organizations. We are proud to call many of them friends who share our worries, projects, and dreams.
For those who are wondering, we never met Georges Soros, neither did any of his people offer us money bags. This is not the place to defend Soros or his organization. The man is fully capable of defending himself and the work he is doing.
Our fellow journalists at the “Free Patriotic Movement,” and their nameless, faceless, imaginary supporters, joined the list of Soros’s haters, alleging that the media funded by the man’s organization was a mercenary tool in the hands of those seeking to implement destructive agendas.
Here lies a funny twist:
The amount of daily tasks at Daraj has left the founding members no choice but a total devotion to the project. Working full-time, we could no longer produce material for a third party, thus losing an important source of our income, at least in the short range.
80% of our budget is covered by grants from various donors. The majority of the funds we get from Open Society Foundation goes into working on the goal of self-sustainability within a period of five years.
We are not ashamed to admit that, for the time being, we are not totally independent financially. Without funds, it would be the end for us, for we are not willing to default on our employees’ salaries as is the case with most media companies in Lebanon.
To limit our reliance on a single organization, we resorted, from the beginning, to multiple sources. Thus, if one donor decides to stop funding us, our financial stability would suffer, but not our principles.
In addition to our core funding, we collaborate with other journalists to raise funds for small but expensive projects that Daraj would otherwise not be able to engage in on its own. As a company founded by journalists, we respect our reporters’ time, expertise and effort, and we work hard to provide funds to cover their fees, especially in the case of investigative journalism, which are the hardest and the most costly.
For example, we invested the funds we received from Berlin-based Rosa Luxembourg Stifftung, in environmental content produced by Iraqi journalist Khaled Suleiman, one of the best in his field. Together with Khaled and a team of creative producers, we are developing a three-year multi-platform, multi-format content project focused on climate change and the water crisis in the region.
Other examples include grants from Open Media Hub, funded by the EU and managed by the Thomson Foundation union, which we used to fund collaborative projects with organizations like SIRAJ (Syrian Investigative Reporting for Accountability Journalism.) Presently, we are about to launch a project with other partners, tackling the growing racism and hate-speech in all its forms.
Also, we received funding from the New York-based National Endowment for Democracy to produce “The Factory,” a series of articles and videos investigating our theory that the Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq by no means represents the end of the terrorist organization. All the elements that led to its creation in the first place are still there.
One of the subjects the series tackled is the role of the United States in the birth of ISIS, as it happened under its watch at the Buka prison in Iraq.
So if anyone wishes to call our work “a conspiracy,” they are welcome to do so. However, our agenda is transparent and has been clearly stated on our website from day one, for anyone who wishes to learn about it.
From day one, we searched for partners to work with for a better world, based on justice, equality and respect for all individual rights: the right to freedom of worship and of expression, the right to be safe, and to choose one’s sexual orientation.
As for the organizations we work with, but with which we differ on the economic approach, they never imposed any rules on us.
The other day, I laughed at a TV report “accusing” Daraj of promoting refugee and gay rights. You cannot accuse us of what is at the core of our mission in the first place: giving a voice to minorities. It is our duty to defend Syrian refugees against racism and hate-speech.
Breaking ridiculous taboos that failed to protect our societies and led to our current state of poverty, ignorance, and backwardness, is not an accusation.
It is our raison d’être.
It is the reason why Daraj was born!