The New York Times’ ‘Caliphate’ Podcast Endangers Iraqi Lives

Published August 19th, 2018 - 12:56 GMT
(left) Yazidi refugees (right) NYT journalist Rukmini Callimachi (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
(left) Yazidi refugees (right) NYT journalist Rukmini Callimachi (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)

 

  • The New York Times' Caliphate Podcast publicly outed a family to have an ISIS member in it
  • The exposure endangers the family to revenge attacks by Iraqis, angry at ISIS' destruction
  • Revealing the details of the family, experts say, is dangerous and inhumane
  • The New York Times seems unconcerned that their story may cause needless harm to its subjects

 

 

In one of the most emotionally charged moments during The New York Times’ podcast, Caliphate, a mother sobs uncontrollably inside her family estate in Iraq. In between gasps for air, she exclaims to her interviewer, NYT journalist Rukmini Callimachi, that she did not raise her son to join a group like ISIS, but that is what he did.

The NYT’s Caliphate podcast is gripping and intended to shed light on why people join ISIS and how the group works. It has been widely praised and may bag its host, who is a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, even more awards. It has become a required listen for D.C. think tank-types and journalists alike.

But it has also endangered the lives and reputation of a distraught family in Iraq by publicly exposing them to elements of society that seek revenge and has been going to extreme lengths to enact it.

The podcast provided enough information about the family, included the family member who joined ISIS’ full name, what tribe they are part of, where they live and how wealthy they are, to expose them. Their only crime is that they are one of thousands of families that has had to cope with a member joining the nascent terror group.

The NYT podcast’s treatment of its subjects is inhumane and dangerous, experts tell Al Bawaba.

 

Re-Victimizing an Iraqi Family

(New York Times)

Most of the Caliphate podcast follows the testimony of a Canadian-Pakistani man who admits to Callimachi that he joined ISIS and even killed in its name. But the podcast takes a turn on episode Eight when Callimachi lands in Iraq and makes her way for Mosul, which at the time of recording, still had a heavy ISIS presence.

There, Callimachi enters a building and scavenges it for documents related to ISIS. She stumbles upon a briefcase and opens it to find a small trove of notes, receipts and other documents related to the group’s management of agriculture. Inside too, she finds the picture and details of a man nicknamed Abu Jerrah, whose real name is Yasir Issa Hassan as revealed by Callimachi. The podcast also airs the name of his tribe, and the fact that his family’s estate is located on the outskirts of Samarra, Iraq.

Yasir Issa Hassan, it turns out, was a top-level ISIS bureaucrat who reportedly taxed Iraq’s agricultural sector, helping to churn out $19 million in revenue for the group. From the information provided, Callimachi finds where his family is and decides to confront them directly, on-air, for the podcast.

After describing the family houses’ aristocratic flair in great detail, Callimachi speaks with the mother of Yasir. From the information in the briefcase, Callimachi shows her irrefutable evidence that Yasir was indeed in ISIS, and the mother breaks down, slapping her own face and sobbing. Earlier in the podcast, Callimachi is actually heard holding the papers detailing Yasir’s involvement in ISIS and exclaiming "I'm feeling really excited, I'm feeling like, giddy." These are the same papers that told the mother her son was a terrorist and that their family name has just been tarnished with an affiliation to what is considered the worst terrorist group in modern history.

 

In a moment that exposes the sheer chasm separating how Callimachi sees the documents and how Iraqis do, Callimachi excitedly kisses a piece of paper showing how ISIS manufactures its own weapons; a paper that her Iraqi translator "will only touch with gloves," as the podcast co-host tells it. To Callimachi, these papers are gold; to others, they are dark reminders that unspeakable terror grew out of their own communities. 

 

Why This is Dangerous

Mosul (AFP/FILE)

The podcast aired enough details about the family that they can be easily identified within Iraqi society, especially by those in their own communities that know the family and are looking for someone to blame for the destruction of Iraq under the hands of ISIS.

When asked by Al Bawaba whether the NYT’s airing of details about the family is dangerous, experts and human rights activists were unequivocal: not only is it dangerous from the NYT, it is also inhumane.

“Absolutely, they do endanger the lives of these innocent families by reporting their names, whereabouts and other details,” said Yerevan Saeed, a research fellow at the Iraq-based Middle East Research Institute (MERI).

In responding to ISIS, “journalists rush to crack down the families of these perpetrators, violate their privacy, draw massive attention which puts the family under excessive psychological pressure and humiliation,” Saeed told Al Bawaba.

Belkis Wille, a senior Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch, agreed, saying it can “absolutely” endanger the lives of families to expose them in the way NYT did.

“We have documented numerous incidents of families being ostracized or even attacked for having a loved one who is perceived to have joined ISIS,” Wille said.

 

Iraqi Security Forces forced almost 200 families of ISIS members to “re-education camps,” outside Mosul “to receive psychological and ideological rehabilitation, after which they will be reintegrated into society if they prove responsive to the rehabilitation program.” The camp is one of several such ‘re-education,’ camps that have operated throughout Iraq, where up to 20,000 have been forcibly held.

Human Rights Watch documented at least 10 deaths of women and children who have died en route to the camps, mostly from dehydration.

Revenge attacks against families of ISIS members have also taken place throughout the country.  In Hammam al-Alil, Qayarrah and Mosul, families have been attacked with grenades as well as threatened on social media with messages like, “you will be shot.”

Families who have had members join ISIS, Saeed said, have been forced to move to a different part of the country to start a new life. “For this, media had not played a constructive role especially in Iraq and Kurdistan, where ethical journalism is at the bottom.”

In the podcast, it is revealed that Yasir has a wife as well; a piece of information that is largely irrelevant from the podcast’s narrative as it never comes up again, but hugely dangerous to air publicly. Iraq’s criminal courts have been weaponized against families and wives of ISIS members. Callimachi’s own colleagues at NYT have vigorously documented cases of wives of ISIS members receiving 10-minute trials before being sentenced to death.

“All those who were innocent yet had their homes destroyed, relatives kidnapped and killed, they will want revenge,” Sunni tribal leader Najih al-Mizan told a reporter last year. “I think a new movement will emerge that is even scarier than ISIS, those who are seeking revenge will have no mission but bloodshed.” Al-Mizan is from Samarra where the family interviewed by Callimachi lives.

 

The al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul's Old City, January 2018 (AFP/FILE)

Apart from the possibility of being physically attacked by mobs and targeted by security forces or Iraqi courts, the family’s reputation can be destroyed.

“In a highly tribal society like Iraq from the south to Kurdistan Region, where social relations are strong, the value of honor is still entrenched within the culture and fabrics of the communities,” said Saeed of MERI.

“People, in general, don't look kindly on families of those who had been associated with ISIS or other extremist groups.”

One of the only ways a family can redeem itself in the eyes of the wider community is to publicly condemn the actions of the family member who joined ISIS and disown him or her.

However, when the family tried to do precisely that on the podcast, Callimachi prevented them from doing so.

In the episode, Callimachi relays that the family insists they have no contact with him, that they don’t know where he is, but that he is alive. The reporter then surmises that because the family know Yasir is alive, they must be in some sort of contact with him. She speculates that “for all I know, he could have been upstairs,” during her talk with his mother and others, apparently unaware that such speculation could give a vengeful Iraqi mob reason to raid the house in search for him.

 

Reflecting on the long-term consequences of journalists exploiting their subjects for stories, Saeed argued, “one can say that such unethical reporting without regard to the lives of the interviewees who are already victims, could, forever, doom them.”

 

The New York Times’ Callous Response

Screen capture of The New York Times’ article on Callimachi’s findings (New York Times)

When Al Bawaba confronted NYT with these concerns, that airing enough details about the family could cause needless harm, Danielle Rhoades, Vice President of Communications, responded with the following:

"The New York Times's mission is to help people understand the world through unrivaled, expert and deeply reported, independent journalism. Our coverage was based on more than a year of reporting that shed new light on how ISIS functioned and was able to stay in power.

We thoroughly vet and confirm information we receive. The decision to publish any sensitive information is made primarily on the basis of whether it is newsworthy and in the public interest.

In this case, Abu Jarrah [Yasir Issa Hassan], whose identity documents including his pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State were published, was a senior administrator of the terrorist organization. Records found inside his recovered briefcase indicate that he oversaw $19 million of the terror group’s revenue. We are confident our decision to publish was responsible journalism.”

Al Bawaba then followed up with NYT, asking if they had ensured the safety of the family since publishing, and did not receive a response.

Inside the NYT’s official response to the safety concerns of the story, the publishing priorities are laid bare: because Yasir was so important in ISIS, his story had to be published. Sensitive information published to expose the family is worth it, in the eyes of NYT “and in public interest,” because it is apparently instrumental to Yasir’s own story, even if it causes physical or reputational harm to the family.

 

But Callimachi did not need to say the family tribe’s name, nor did she need to broadcast where they live, what kind of house they own, the fact that he is married or even his real name. Omitting all of this, Callimachi still would have been able to communicate that one man from an influential tribe and stable family joined ISIS after being humiliated by U.S. soldiers during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Nothing in the story would have been lost.

The information is then just as harmful to the family as it is useless to the narrative.

And while the specific details of Yasir’s management of agriculture under ISIS are new, it is not groundbreaking to air out documents related to how ISIS had a functioning bureaucracy, which is the stated point of the episode, according to the NYT statement. Thousands of leaked pages from its reign have already shown this time and time again. It is simply not groundbreaking anymore.

 

Joining a Disturbing Trend

Rukmini Callimachi (Late Night with Seth Meyers)

Although some have noted the Caliphate’s predatory journalism, it is part of a general pattern of Western reporting on conflict zones, where the humanity and agency of survivors are sacrificed in the name of getting ‘scoops,’ or unique insights. The traumas that this causes are thought to be irrelevant to the story and thus ignored.

Most infamously, in reporting on violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1960s, a british TV reporter was heard indiscriminately shouting to a crowd of rescued Belgian nuns, “anyone here been raped and speaks English?"

Contemporary reporting on ISIS’ treatment of Yazidi women has continued that approach, with most Yazidi women interviewed by journalists later saying their privacy was violated by interviewers or their being coerced to tell their stories and relive their traumas.

“They take our stories and they don’t do anything for us. They come here and they take videos, take pictures, ask questions, and then they go,” one Yazidi woman said.

Wille of Human Rights Watch told Al Bawaba that she had concerns with the way Callimachi treated a Yazidi girl whom she interviewed for another episode of the Caliphate podcast. Callimachi had the girl hear the voice of her rapist over the phone without any apparent referral to subsequent psychosocial services.

The Caliphate podcast, heralded by some as a breakthrough in conflict journalism and as a unique insight into ISIS itself, commits decades-old patterns of exploitation and endangerment of its subjects.

Although Callimachi may reap the praise, fame and rewards for the podcast, her subjects will be left with the needless damages and harm thrust upon them.

“I was a journalist, working in a war zone,” Saeed of MERI said, referring to his time working inside war torn Iraq during the mid-2000s.

“I know how bad its. You really don't want to turn these victims into the ladder of your success. It's shameless, unethical and inhumane.”


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