A Brave Young Journalist in Jordan

Jordanian investigative journalist Hanan Khandakji with jhr’s media trainer Bonnie Allen in Amman, Jordan.

Jordanian investigative journalist Hanan Khandakji with JHR’s media trainer Bonnie Allen in Amman, Jordan.

While I’m doing human rights reporting training in different countries, I like to use local ‘success’ stories that will resonate with journalists. In Jordan, that example comes from a brave young woman named Hanan Khandakji.

In 2011, at the age of 22, Hanan went undercover to document physical abuse and negligence at private care centers for mentally disabled children in Jordan.

During JHR’s visit to Amman, Jordan, the Canadian Ambassador hosted Journalists for Human Rights and members of the Jordanian media at his residence . While there,  I was thrilled to have the chance to sit down with Hanan to learn more about her investigation.

A petite university student with lovely brown eyes, Hanan laughed when I asked if she was nervous about going undercover. “Of course! It was my first investigation,” she said.

These private care centers are big business in Jordan, often catering to rich or affluent businessmen in the Gulf Region who send their mentally or physically disabled children away to Jordan to live in residential care homes.

The story started two years ago. Hanan was studying business at university and filing freelance stories to Radio Al-Balad and AmmanNet. A friend had told her about his disabled sister who lived in a care home and suffered physical abuse. At the same time, the newsroom received a tip about sexual abuse in another care home. Those two reports compelled Hanan to launch her investigation.

She spent months compiling research and interviewing families. She was convinced the only way to gather evidence was to go undercover. She devised a ‘cover story’.

“I told them I wanted to volunteer because I needed community service hours for university credit,” explained Hanan. Finally, a care center agreed. She started her volunteer work with an audio recorder hidden in her purse.

Mentally disabled children were beaten by caregivers in private homes in Jordan. (courtesy BBC Arabic)

Mentally disabled children were beaten by caregivers in private homes in Jordan. (courtesy BBC Arabic)

Over eight days, she documented beatings and maltreatment of children with mental and developmental challenges ranging from severe autism to Downs Syndrome. Hanan witnessed children being tied to chairs and ignored all day. Others were hit and kicked. One ‘caregiver’ described how she jumped on a boy until she didn’t feel him breathing anymore. “I thought he was dead,” said the woman.

A supervisor at the the care facility told Hanan that beating the children was “part of therapy, or a way for the supervisor to vent out his/her feelings.”

Hanan wasn’t alone in her investigation. She received support and supervision from Majdoulien Allan and Saad Hattarf from the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) network.

When Hanan was ready to release her print and radio stories, she was told that BBC Arabic Television had learned of her investigation through ARIJ and wanted to film it. At first, Hanan was reluctant. It would mean going back into a care home.

“I was tired. It had affected me psychologically,” she told me.

Still, she knew that international exposure could mean the issue would get more attention and place more pressure on authorities inside Jordan.

“If the same report come out in local media, it won’t have the same affect. [Jordanian authorities] are afraid of the international scandal,” said Hanan.

Hanan Khandakji filmed teachers mistreating children in their care. (courtesy BBC Arabic)

Hanan Khandakji filmed teachers mistreating children in their care. (courtesy BBC Arabic)

So, in February 2012, she went back inside the care home for another eight days, this time equipped with a hidden camera courtesy of BBC.

Hanan’s work is brave by any standards, but particularly so in a country where more than half of the media admit that they avoid reporting stories critical of the government. Jordanian journalists are also discouraged from reporting anything that would “embarrass” the proud yet aid-reliant nation.

When Hanan’s story “Jordan’s Secret Shame” was aired by BBC, it caused an uproar. Jordanians were appalled. Jordan’s Minister of Social Development visited the center but initially tried to dismiss the abuses as ‘isolated cases’ and not a systemic problem. However, that same day, Jordan’s King Abdullah II  went to the center and ordered an urgent investigation.

To its credit, the investigation committee did not whitewash the issue. In fact, within two weeks, it submitted its final report and revealed additional abuses including keeping mentally disabled children in cages.

Eight of Jordan’s 54 private care homes now face allegations of abuse. Three centers were closed and several case workers are still under criminal investigation.

Jordan’s government promised to revise policies and laws to meet international human rights standards.

This is the kind of story, impact and outcome that JHR strives for in its country programs in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s still to be determined whether this report will lead to systemic change, but Jordanian journalists should be inspired by Hanan’s brave reporting. I know I am.

 

 

You can watch a short English version of the video Hanan filmed  here: Abuse of disabled children in Jordan’s care home.

And read the BBC English report here:  BBC uncovers abuse at children’s care homes in Jordan  (link to : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18073144  )

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