Investigative news website shuts as ex-editor wins £80k damages for misrepresentation of its political purpose - Press Gazette

Investigative news website shuts as ex-editor wins £80k damages for misrepresentation of its political purpose

A London-based investigative news website has closed after its former editor-in-chief successfully claimed in court she had been misled about its intentions and funding.

The Investigative Journal (TIJ) launched in early 2019 and claimed it planned to publish public interest long-form journalism with an objective viewpoint.

The non-profit site said at the time it was initially being funded by Yousri Ishaq, who has a background in broadcast journalism at the Middle East Broadcasting Network in the US.

But court documents have now alleged its funding was “deeply opaque” and may in fact have come from, or on behalf of, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to promote criticism of their critics.

The website was led by Mohamed Fahmy (pictured, right), the former Al Jazeera journalist who was imprisoned for more than 400 days in Egypt after being arrested in December 2013.

He was pardoned and released in 2015 and continued to campaign on press freedom issues, including through his own Fahmy Foundation – the website for which now also appears to have been removed.

TIJ appointed Jane Cahane (pictured, left), a journalist of 30 years’ standing, to be its editor-in-chief on £41,500 (rising to £48,000 within six months). However, she told the High Court in documents seen by Press Gazette, she found herself editor “in name only” despite the range of responsibilities detailed in the job description and her interview with Fahmy.

She claimed Fahmy “micromanaged” much of her work, including in the commissioning and planning of articles and the hiring of staff and contributors, and took all substantial decisions relating to TIJ himself.

When the site’s launch was announced in February 2019 Fahmy’s name was not mentioned although he had interviewed Cahane for her job two months earlier. She said he instructed staff not to reveal his involvement for several months until he was formally appointed chief executive in May that year. Cahane said she was therefore effectively used as a “public facade” for the site’s credibility.

[Read more: New investigative long-form website launches in bid to ‘counteract fake news’]

Cahane suggested articles that would have developed TIJ’s reputation as a “premier news portal for deeply researched and reported longform investigative journalism” but if they did not meet the website’s true purpose they were almost always resisted by Fahmy, she told the court in her claim.

Instead the website “was never intended to be a reliable, accurate, well-researched, trustworthy, independent, balanced and nuanced investigative journal”, Cahane said in her court claim.

Cahane had joined TIJ believing it would produce the “kind of journalism I grew up believing in and ready to fight for”, as she told Press Gazette when its launch was announced in February 2019.

But she soon realised how it was in fact “designed, purposed, intended, funded and operated” to covertly support and advocate for deeply authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, in particular those in power in Egypt and the UAE.

According to Cahane, TIJ’s articles, reports and social media “clearly demonstrate politically motivated bias and manipulation”.

They included articles about countries such as Turkey, Qatar and Iran and organisations such as former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood – the same group over which Fahmy was imprisoned for allegedly being a member.

Cahane also told the court Fahmy was in close contact with representatives of the UAE and Egypt.

Cahane was dismissed on 19 June 2019 – but paid until the end of July that year – following her clashes with Fahmy which came as she challenged her role amid her “growing realisation, discomfort and frustration with the true nature of TIJ”.

Cahane said her association with TIJ had “seriously harmed” her reputation for journalistic independence and integrity and undermined her standing among her peers.

She suffered her longest period of unemployment following her dismissal and at the same time felt “substantial physical and mental stress” including feelings of burnout, anxiety, and of not being able to trust future employers.

TIJ has since quietly shut down and the website is inaccessible. Its Companies House page shows its first set of accounts for the year to 31 October 2019 were never filed and are a year overdue. Fahmy is now the only director listed, as Ishaq resigned in April.

Senior Master Fontaine at London’s High Court has awarded Cahane £80,735.92 in damages covering financial losses because of her subsequent unemployment as well as her anxiety and distress. She was also awarded costs of £157,613.

The judge, who ruled in Cahane’s favour in a default judgment after TIJ and Fahmy failed to defend themselves, said: “This was a particularly difficult and sensitive area relating to journalism and the funding of journalism for purposes that were alleged to be political rather than independent and relates to alleged funding from Middle-Eastern sources.

“In this case, perhaps similarly to some claims for defamation, the reputation of the claimant as a journalist of integrity was at stake and for her that concern was likely to have been as important as the financial claim that she has made…”

In 2017 it was revealed that Fahmy received “significant” funding from a UAE official to launch a legal battle against Al Jazeera, for whom he was working when he was detained in Egypt.

Canada-based Fahmy dropped his multi-million dollar claim against Al Jazeera last year before cross-examination could take place.

[Read more: Former Al Jazeera journalist who was jailed in Egypt says Trump is putting reporters at risk]

Press Gazette has been unable to contact Fahmy for comment.

Picture: Twitter/The Investigative Journal

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