ICFJ Voices: Sarah Abdallah, Managing a Community of Journalists in the MENA Region

By: Jordyn Habib | 03/08/2024

This year, ICFJ is celebrating our 40th anniversary and our long history of supporting journalists. Throughout the year, we will be showcasing network members from around the world. 

Growing up in Lebanon amid wars and economic and social instability, “makes you live with the news,” says Sarah Abdallah, who knew very early on she wanted to be a reporter. Now a professional journalist with a decade of experience, Abdallah has found that journalism is a powerful tool for shining a light on underrepresented communities, including her own. 

Abdallah has worked since 2016 on several ICFJ initiatives as a consultant, managing programs, translating, editing, training and even creating a media entrepreneurship course in Arabic. The programs have supported journalists in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in a variety of ways, including with emergency funding after the Beirut Port explosion, refugee reporting, video storytelling and mobile journalism. 

 


Today for ICFJ she leads IJNet Arabic, where she manages a team of 50 contributors from the Middle East that produces daily content on conflict zone reporting, investigative journalism and more. She also leads the Arabic-language Pamela Howard Forum on Global Crisis Reporting. 

Abdallah holds two degrees in law and political science and linguistics, and masters in linguistics.  

Here is what Abdallah had to say. 

Why did you choose to become a journalist?  

Being a child in Lebanon, a country exposed to intermittent wars, explosions and economic problems, makes you live with the news. Since I was young, I had a passion to become a journalist. I would have loved to become a TV anchor, but the hijab was an obstacle to me, as most TV stations do not allow veiled women to present programs and broadcast news bulletins. From there, I embarked on journalistic translation due to my desire to learn about international news and my study of linguistics, as well as my studies of law and political science. 

I also have a passion for knowledge and learning new things. This is what journalism achieves, presenting new opportunities and tools on a daily basis. This is what ICFJ and IJNet provide in the dynamic digital age. They help journalists acquire new skills, identify opportunities and develop journalism by connecting it with technology. 

After years of working with several institutions, I discovered this field’s true mission: to shed light on society and people behind the spotlight, to pay attention to inclusion, diversity, equity and credibility. To give voice and light to those who deserve it, to the underrepresented, the marginalized, the refugees and people with special needs and, most important to me, women — especially in the Middle East. 

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring journalist? 

I recommend learning new languages if possible, to improve design thinking, and to be innovative. Specify the journalism category they want to master, to strive for a unique media identity. It’s very important to get new digital and multimedia skills, but remember that content is king and be committed to ethical reporting, give priority to human stories, and serve communities.  

If you are living in a conflict zone, try to learn more about physical safety and mental health, and keep this reminder: “There is no story that is worth your life.” 

Why is it so important right now to provide the kind of support to journalists that ICFJ does, especially in the region where you work and/or on the issues you work on?

Journalists in the MENA region often face significant challenges, including conflicts, censorship, harassment, imprisonment, wars, economic collapse and so on. The role of ICFJ is to support them, equipping them with the main tools and tips to launch new independent startups and achieve sustainability, promoting freedom of expression, and holding governments accountable.

Through IJNet’s mentorship program, for example, we were able to support 70 startups in the MENA region, some of them related to women, climate change, people with disabilities, investigative journalism and more. 

Our resources and training in Arabic help journalists who play a vital role in uncovering corruption, and in providing accurate information, debunking disinformation, amplifying marginalized voices, paying attention to humanitarian crises and human rights abuses occurring in conflict zones. ICFJ is playing a great role through programs, resources and research to support independent journalists and make communities stronger. 

When you are not working for ICFJ, what do you do? Has your experience working with ICFJ been helpful in some way for this? 

Working with a worldwide team at ICFJ helped me in different ways. My long experience with journalistic translation for ICFJ’s programs, the importance of breaking the language barrier and informing people about what some people do not want to tell them, led me to launch my own website that aims to inform people with the featured news from worldwide newspapers and to keep them updated with what is happening on the global scene. This information may sometimes be absent in the media affiliated with political parties, which do not convey everything that people have the right to know, enabling them to make informed decisions and participate meaningfully in public life. I look forward to being able to expand the languages ​​and include translators from other languages such as Russian and Turkish, as well as establishing partnerships with institutions that want to translate some content into Arabic. 

Based on my interest in human rights journalism I have benefited from the refugees reporting program, and will launch a website called “Refugees voices” to let the voices of refugees be heard. I will post the suffering and success stories of refugees in Lebanon, the country hosting the largest number of refugees per capita, and per square kilometer in the world. 

Finally, I greatly benefited from programs and training designing and I am preparing a kids hub, an edutainment center to equip kids in Lebanon with digital skills, artificial intelligence, languages, storytelling, mental health and more, to equip them with the necessary skills for the future. 

It is worth mentioning that the resources IJNet has produced on physical and mental health helped me while covering the Lebanese revolution in October 2019, for L’orient le jour, a French-language daily newspaper in Lebanon. The safety, mental health and audience trust resources are helping me in covering the south Lebanon war now for a Lebanese outlet.

 

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