New York Times podcast ‘Caliphate’ faces backlash over ethics

In ‘Caliphate,’ which debuted in April, New York Times investigative journalist Rukmini Callimachi asks of the war of terror, ‘Who is it that we’re really fighting?’ The result is a gripping foray into the world of Daesh recruitment, butchery, and murder. (Screenshot: NYT Trailer of Caliphate)
Updated 05 June 2018
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New York Times podcast ‘Caliphate’ faces backlash over ethics

  • The paper’s mini-series follows the story of a Canadian Daesh returnee — dubbed Abu Huzaifa Al-Kanadi — and is The New York Times’ first foray into a new style of journalism.
  • “Caliphate” follows in the footsteps of smash series such as “Serial” and “S-Town,” investigative journalism spinoffs from the hugely influential “This American Life” podcast.

LONDON: Across the world, millions of listeners are eagerly awaiting their next fix of “Caliphate,” the debut narrative documentary podcast from The New York Times.
The paper’s mini-series follows the story of a Canadian Daesh returnee — dubbed Abu Huzaifa Al-Kanadi — and is The New York Times’ first foray into a new style of journalism.
“Caliphate” follows in the footsteps of smash series such as “Serial” and “S-Town,” investigative journalism spinoffs from the hugely influential “This American Life” podcast.
“Serial,” launched in 2014, has been downloaded more than 250 million times, while S-Town, which debuted last year, was downloaded more than 10 million times in the first four days of its release — setting a new record in the podcasting world.
In “Caliphate,” which debuted in April, New York Times investigative journalist Rukmini Callimachi (right) asks of the war of terror, “Who is it that we’re really fighting?” The result is a gripping foray into the world of Daesh recruitment, butchery, and murder.
Despite the show’s gory public appeal, the podcast’s success has provoked a backlash in Canada.
While he was reportedly questioned by the Canadian Security and Intelligence Services, Abu Huzaifa has not been charged with any crimes.
There were angry questions in the Canadian House of Commons last month, when Conservative House leader Candice Bergen asked the Trudeau government why Abu Huzaifa is freely being allowed to live in Canada.
“This guy is apparently in Toronto. Canadians deserve more answers from this government,” Bergen said. “Why aren’t they doing something about this despicable animal that’s walking around the country? This individual is speaking freely to the media.”
This rise in the popularity of shows such as “Caliphate” and “Serial” has highlighted an overlap between the practices of investigative journalism, law enforcement and public policy. Experts also warn of blurring the line between narrative fiction and reality, and of drawing the wrong kind of attention to historical crimes.
Scott Lucas, professor of politics at the University of Birmingham, said he has a “double-edged view” of podcasts such as “Caliphate.”
“I can admire this type of journalism, particularly when it brings new light and gets a retrial for the convicted or gets the case squashed. This can be a mark of great journalism,” Lucas told Arab News.
However, the professor said podcasts must be careful not to elevate crimes for the sake of entertainment.
“When you sensationalize it, you run into problems. ‘Caliphate’ doesn’t do that but it’s something that they need to be aware of.”
Lucas added that journalists have a duty “to tell the full story” and not lose sight of the wider causes of the phenomenon that is Daesh.
“(‘Caliphate’) mentions the beheading of (US journalist) James Foley with only a quick reference … sometimes when we stare at Daesh like this, the context is lost. The NYT should take the story as wide as possible,” he said.
Despite Callimachi potentially uncovering vital Daesh intelligence, Lucas insisted “a journalist must just carry out a journalist’s job, which is only to find information.” He explained: “A journalist is not there to carry out the provision of law enforcement. It’s up to the law enforcers to investigate criminals.
“While ‘Caliphate’ is talking about a phenomenon that is confusing and unsettling, in my opinion that line is still clear-cut between law enforcement and journalism.”
In one podcast, Abu Huzaifa confessed murder to Callimachi but later rescinded his confession when questioned by local news station CBC.
This raises questions about the witness’ veracity, said Lucas.
“Is (Callimachi) even being told a truthful story? She may have similar analysis skills with law enforcers, but it’s not her job to see whether she has enough evidence for court,” he said.
In an article published in the NYT earlier this year, Callimachi detailed how she scoured abandoned Daesh “government” posts for documents and souvenirs. Much of her team’s haul contained enlightening and granular evidence of the brutal regime’s crimes and day-to-day activities.
But did she hand any of the hastily retrieved documents — often snatched in the fresh aftermath of a Daesh stronghold takeover — to Iraqi security forces? “Of course not!” Callimachi told Arab News via Twitter.
In Lucas’ opinion, “Those ISIS documents are investigated as a journalist and not as a criminal investigator. (Security services) will contact journalists in certain cases.”
Charlie Beckett, director of the Truth, Trust and Technology Commission at the London School of Economics, said that he doesn’t see a real difference between a podcast and any other form of journalism when it comes to ethics.
“If you can justify a public interest then you have a good reason to publish evidence,” Beckett told Arab News. “As long as it does not compromise the workings of the judicial system or prevent due and fair process then this is exactly what journalism should do. How media outlets manage it must depend partly on local laws and norms, but also on the policy of that newsroom.”


Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

Updated 21 May 2019
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Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

  • A recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan
  • Journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom

KABUL: Beneath the gaze of the TV cameras a woman begins speaking, at first softly but with growing passion as she faces the "Butcher of Kabul" across a crowded auditorium and asks if he wants to apologise for alleged war crimes.
Without missing a beat, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ruthless former warlord blamed for rocket attacks which reduced much of the Afghan capital to rubble in the 1990s, declined to do so.
The dramatic moment during a recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan, where -- for now -- traumatised civilians can stand and at least try to hold powerful men to account, live on camera.
"Years ago, these kind of questions could get you killed, but now people can challenge the most dangerous people in mainstream and social media," Mustafa Rahimi, a university student, said after watching the debate.
But today, even as hundreds of media outlets proliferate across Afghanistan, consumers and journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom.
"We are concerned about a total or a partial ban on media," Sediqullah Khaliq, the director of Hewad TV and radio in Kandahar -- the birthplace of Taliban -- told AFP.
"There is fear that we may go back to a media blackout or having a state-controlled press."
While in power, the Taliban raged against traditional forms of mass communication and entertainment, banning television, movies and allowing only Islamist programming or propaganda to be broadcast on the only radio station, Voice of Sharia.
Anyone caught watching TV faced punishment and risked having their television set smashed and then displayed from a lamppost.
Almost all electronic products were outlawed as un-Islamic. For a while, trees in Kabul fluttered with the magnetic ribbon tape from destroyed cassettes.
Photographs of living things were illegal, and ownership of a video player could lead to a public lashing.
Afghanistan is the world's deadliest place for journalists, who face many risks covering the conflict and who have sometimes been targeted for doing their job.
Nine journalists, including AFP Kabul's chief photographer Shah Marai, were killed in an Islamic State attack in April 2018.
Media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that 2018 was the deadliest year on record for journalists in Afghanistan, with at least 15 media workers killed while working.
Despite the risks, hundreds of media organisations have blossomed since 2001, and today there are more than 100 television channels, 284 radio stations and just over 400 newspapers and magazines, according to a government report.
With one of the world's lowest literacy rates, television and radio play a huge role in Afghan culture, and Afghans have grown accustomed to outlets holding their politicians to account.
Warlords, politicians, Taliban sympathisers and government officials are openly challenged in televised debates, radio programmes and on social media.
"We now play live music, women call in and share their problems on the radio. But even if the Taliban allow radios, I don't think they would like our programmes," said Mera Hamdam, a presenter at Zama private radio in Kandahar.
"There is huge concern that we will lose all our achievements," he said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said if they return to power, the insurgents would follow an Islamic interpretation of freedom of expression.
"We won't allow propaganda, insults and humiliation to people in society and religious values. We will allow those who work for the betterment of the society," he told AFP.
A sixth round of talks between the US and the Taliban wrapped up last week in Doha, with apparently little progress being made on several key issues.
The two foes have for months been trying to hammer out a deal that could see foreign forces leave Afghanistan in return for a ceasefire, talks between Kabul and the Taliban, and a guarantee the country will not be used as a safe haven for terror groups.
But observers worry that in a rush to quit Afghanistan after nearly 18 gruelling years of war, America might not push for safeguards of protections many Afghans now take for granted, including media freedoms and improved rights for women and other marginalised people.
"Freedom of expression as a protective value should be incorporated into any document resulting from peace talks," NAI, a leading media support agency, said in a statement.
Rahimi, the university student, said he worried about Afghanistan going back to "the dark era".