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.”


Turkey remains world’s worst offender against press freedom

Updated 13 December 2018
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Turkey remains world’s worst offender against press freedom

  • A report by the Committee to Protect Journalists said that a near-record number of journalists around the world are behind bars for their work
  • The CPJ said there are dozens of reporters missing or kidnapped in the Middle East and North Africa

Turkey remains the world’s worst offender against press freedom, the Committee to Protect Journalists said on Thursday, with at least 68 journalists imprisoned for anti-state charges.

Turkey has previously said its crackdown is justified because of an attempted coup to overthrow the government in 2016.

The report said that a near-record number of journalists around the world are behind bars for their work, including two Reuters reporters whose imprisonment in Myanmar has drawn international criticism.

There were 251 journalists jailed for doing their jobs as of Dec. 1, the CPJ said in an annual study. For the third consecutive year, more than half are in Turkey, China and Egypt, where authorities have accused reporters of anti-governmental activities.

“It looks like a trend now,” the report’s author, Elana Beiser, said in an interview. “It looks like the new normal.”

The number of journalists imprisoned on charges of “false news” rose to 28, up from 21 last year and nine in 2016, according to the CPJ, a U.S.-based nonprofit that promotes press freedom.

The report criticized U.S. President Donald Trump for frequently characterizing negative media coverage as “fake news,” a phrase that is also used by leaders against their critics in countries like the Philippines and Turkey.

In Egypt, at least 25 journalists are in prison. Authorities say this is to limit dissent are directed at militants trying to undermine the state.

Meanwhile, when asked about journalists being jailed, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said: “Legal measures are not taken because of these suspects’ or criminals’ professions. This is unrelated.”

The overall number of jailed journalists is down eight percent from last year’s record high of 272, the CPJ said.

The total does not take into account journalists who have disappeared or are being held by non-state actors. The CPJ said there are dozens of reporters missing or kidnapped in the Middle East and North Africa, including several held by Houthis in Yemen.

(With Reuters)