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Controversy around New York Times’ reporter Rukmini Callimachi & her podcast on Islamic State

In episode 593 of #CutTheClutter, Shekhar Gupta delves into the recent New York Times controversy surrounding its Middle East correspondent Rukmini Callimachi.

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New Delhi: The controversy around The New York Times’ celebrated reporter Rukmini Callimachi and her coverage of the Islamic State (IS) will not make the terror group any less worse but the concern that her work has contributed to a stereotyping of a community, ethnicity and an entire faith is equally valid, said ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta in episode 593 of ‘Cut the Clutter’.

The IS has become the most enduring international news story in the past decade, especially in the West, and the media has faced great challenges in covering it, said Gupta.

Knowing the language and the region, Callimachi is a globally-trusted reporter in this field but she is now caught in a controversy over her celebrated podcast ‘Caliphate’. She had earlier worked for the Associated Press in West Africa and then joined the NYT in 2014.

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Controversy around the ‘Caliphate’ podcasts

Callimachi is currently under scrutiny for the source that laid the foundation of her 10-part podcast series, ‘Caliphate’, which was released in 2018.

Caliphate refers to the pan-Islamic entity that the IS believes in. For a while, the terrorist group controlled a lot of territory between Syria and Iraq and even the city of Mosul but they have now divided into different factions with a smaller footprint.

A key interviewee in the Caliphate podcast was a man who called himself Abu Huzayfah, who went into great detail about how he joined the ISIS and carried out two executions of hostages.

On 25 September, however, Canadian police arrested a man who called himself by the same name but whose true identity was Shehroze Chaudhry. He was nabbed under Canada’s hoax law for lying that he had killed people. “He is a Pakistani and his father runs a shawarma shop somewhere in Canada,” added Gupta.

Given Callimachi’s international reputation, there were other journalists anticipating her fall as “there is no place more perilous for a successful professional than a newsroom,” added Gupta.

After the arrest in Canada, journalists within the NYT and other media organisations like The Washington Post, Slate and The Daily Beast criticised Callimachi’s coverage and raised questions about her other work. “Maybe the solution is to change the podcast name to #hoax?” tweeted The New York Times’ former Iraq bureau chief Margaret Coker, who quit after a dispute with Callimachi.

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Investigating the investigation

NYT then appointed media correspondent Ben Smith, known as “a hit man for famous bylines” to investigate the podcasts, explained Gupta.

He found out that Callimachi had a conversation with Derrick Henry Flood, a young stringer in Syria who did freelance work for foreign correspondents, in 2018. She asked Flood, who was in Manbij at the time, to confirm the identity of Abu Huzayfah.

“What Ben Smith is trying to tell us is that in 2018, even while the podcasts were on, there was concern as to who he was,” observed Gupta. Presently, the NYT has organised a group of top editors, including Dean Murphy and Mark Mazzetti, to further probe the matter.

Critics of Callimachi have pointed out that terrorists like to exaggerate their achievements through the media and terrify further. “These are also a lot of intellectuals in the Middle East…who thought she was unnecessarily demonising the Middle East and Islamic culture,” added Gupta.

Doubts were also cast over Callimachi’s article, published on 28 December 2014, about a Syrian captive of ISIS, by the name of Louai Abo Aljoud, who allegedly saw American hostages at a prison camp in Aleppo and tried to report them to an “indifferent” American government.

The NYT then sent a different reporter, Tim Arango, back to Turkey to reconfirm the story but his findings have been “inconclusive”.

According to Gupta, when people find one chink in your armour, they try to open it and then demolish the entire edifice.

Watch the latest episode of CTC here:

Also read: BBC to New York Times – Why Indian governments have always been wary of foreign press


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