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
0

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.”


Live from Idlib, an American broadcasts from Syria’s last rebel zone

Bilal Abdul Kareem. (Photo credit: twipu)
Updated 24 September 2018
0

Live from Idlib, an American broadcasts from Syria’s last rebel zone

  • Around 3 million people live in Idlib and surrounding rebel territory, including foreigners who have joined the war against the Assad regime

BEIRUT: Pointing to a green screen as if presenting a weather forecast, Bilal Abdul Kareem analyzes the Turkish-Russian deal over Syria’s Idlib, broadcasting in his native English from inside the war-torn country’s last opposition stronghold.
The 47-year-old American is a long way from where he grew up near the Bronx, watching reruns of “Rocky” and eating at Italian restaurants.
Dressed in a charcoal suit jacket, the broad-shouldered and bearded Abdul Kareem stares into the camera and insists: “In this deal, this specific deal, nobody can say the rebels were not winners.”
For the past six years, he has reported from shrinking opposition territory in Syria’s north, filming the aftermath of airstrikes, interviewing hard-line fighters, even meeting Al-Qaeda members.
His contacts, including in Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), have granted him extensive access at a time when the risk of abduction makes much of Syria too dangerous for journalists from mainstream news outlets.
But it has also prompted allegations that Abdul Kareem is an extremist “propagandist” and would not have survived in the area had he been an impartial journalist — particularly given HTS’ history of harsh crackdowns against perceived foes.
Speaking to AFP from Idlib over Skype, WhatsApp, and Facebook, Abdul Kareem denied the claims and directed accusations of his own: He is suing the US government for allegedly trying to kill him in Syria.
As the case drags through US courts, the self-described “bald-headed black guy in the middle of Syria” has remained in Idlib despite fears of a looming regime offensive, continuing to file dispatches for his media upstart, On the Ground News.
Born Darrell Lamont Phelps, Abdul Kareem embraced Islam before moving to the Middle East in 2002. He married and had children in Egypt, but declined to disclose their location for security reasons.
He arrived in Syria in 2012 from Libya, curious about the fighters battling President Bashar Assad’s forces in a conflict which at that point was just a year old.
Working first with major broadcasters including CNN, he founded OGN in 2015 as editors started to express “doubts” about his political stances, he said.
The channel now publishes on YouTube, Twitter, and a Facebook page with more than 86,000 followers.
“I have a good working relationship with every group, which doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with everything they do or they agree with everything I do,” he said.
A normal day begins with dawn prayers at 4:30 a.m., followed by a routine search of his car for bombs. The rest is up to the news cycle.
He could find himself on a motorcycle zipping toward a frontline, lapel mic in hand but without protective gear, or sipping tea with hardcore fighters most Americans would consider unsavory.
“I remember I had these very, very in-depth conversations with different Al-Qaeda members about America, Americans and the democratic system,” Abdul Kareem said.
He offered unsuccessfully to facilitate a dialogue between Western powers and Idlib’s militants, whom he insisted don’t have “blood dripping from their fangs and want to eat American children.”
The US has designated Al-Qaeda and HTS “terrorist organizations.” Around 3 million people live in Idlib and surrounding rebel territory, including foreigners who have joined the war against the Assad regime. “There are quite a few Americans here. All fighters,” Abdul Kareem said. Asked about his future, he recalled escaping second city Aleppo as it fell to the regime in 2016. If the same fate awaits Idlib, he said, “I would be one of the last people to leave.” Abdul Kareem’s 16-year absence from the US has made him miss simple things: speaking English, sugary cereals. But he fears the 2016 election of President Donald Trump has changed the country too much.
“It sounds like America is not the same America that I grew up in,” he said. His remaining links are with his sister, and a lawsuit he filed last year against Trump and a coterie of US officials, accusing the government of attempting to kill him five times. Once was on a reporting trip. “My car was hit with a drone strike. The car flipped up into the air and landed on its side facing the opposite direction,” he said. Abdul Kareem is demanding the government stop targeting him, remove him from any so-called “kill list” and disclose the names of other citizens who may be on it. In the meantime, OGN’s cameras keep rolling.
“I’m not in America because being here in Syria doing the work that I’m doing and covering the things I’m covering, in my estimation, is the right thing to do,” Abdul Kareem said.
“People are dying by the droves, and if I can do something to help people see what the real realities are, then what business do I have going back to America right now?“