Round Earth Media

Protection or Plunder?

June 1, 2018

Perhaps you’ve seen or heard it —  the New York Times‘ new series and podcast called
The Caliphate.   The series follows reporter Rukmini Callimachi as she reports on the Islamic State (ISIS).  It’s been getting a lot of attention.  And, it’s raised some important ethical questions for journalists.  Here’s Maryam  Saleh, story editor for The Intercept:

The New York Times published an investigation of ISIS last month based on files reporter Rukmini Callimachi removed from Iraq, with permission from security forces. A debate unfolded online about the ownership of the documents. Critics said Callimachi’s actions were reminiscent of the plunder that happened after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

I was intrigued by the debate. What happens when a foreign entity controls the archive from which the first draft of history is written, and what is our ethical responsibility as journalists as we report across borders?

I first set off to understand the historical backdrop, and was shocked to learn that the U.S. government took 120 million pages of national documents from Iraq — an archive that remains mostly unaccounted for.

As an invader, the United States was legally authorized to do that. International law is less certain on the conduct of non-state actors, however, and is rarely, if ever, enforced. But the ethical questions that I explored in my story are, to me, more pertinent. As archival scholar Michelle Caswell told me, archivists think about “context and power and politics and history and culture.” When working with historical documents perhaps we, as journalists, should do that too. 

Click on the image above to read Saleh’s important story.

Yesterday New Yort Times International Editor Michael Slackman responded in part:

The New York Times collected these documents to help explain how a terrorist group like ISIS was able to control such a large area for as long as it did. This is the real story, not one filtered through a government official. It is ISIS in its own words and deeds. How powerful and important. 

Slackman adds that the Times intends to return the originals to the Iraqi government. Here’s the entire response from the New York Times.

With warmest regards,

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