How journalists may be putting ISIS suspects at risk of abuse

May 4, 2018
Photo by Ravi Roshan on Unsplash.

They make for compelling viewing: interviews with members of ISIS about why they joined, what they did and saw, what they confront after defeat and capture. These pieces seem to give us insight into what motivates ISIS. But as a general rule, news organizations should not interview captured or suspected ISIS members who are in no position to consent freely.

Many broadcasters have aired ISIS interviews, including CBS, Fox, and Sky, often presenting them as a rare chance to learn about the secretive group, without taking any steps to obscure the captives’ identities, and sometimes with guards present. Suspects may face legal and physical risks, including torture, by cooperating with journalists—no matter how enticing the story. News organizations should not put people they are interviewing at greater risk; they should instead do whatever they can to protect them from abuse and from making what are effectively forced confessions—even if they are ISIS suspects.

In a segment shown on Vice News Tonight last October, for example, a correspondent interviews an ISIS suspect in the presence of a soldier from Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, stating that the suspect has admitted to beheading five Peshmerga (Kurdish government) soldiers. Through translation, the detainee says he was trained on how to behead someone and describes the process. Despite the guard, the correspondent says that the suspect “insists he was talking to us out of his own free will.” At the same detention facility, the correspondent goes on to interview a 15-year-old ISIS suspect—who is named in the piece, despite apparently being a child soldier—about the training he received from ISIS.

While we don’t know what happened to these prisoners afterwards, Vice’s story is just one example of a reputable international news organization that may be putting its sources at risk.

In response to these concerns, a Vice News spokesperson said there is “a journalistic duty to show conditions on the ground, including ISIS recruitment of young people…. All our editorial decisions are made with careful regard to legal and ethical considerations. Arguments about whether a particular interview in a specific situation is justifiable can often be made both ways, as they frequently are in our newsroom and many others.”

RELATED: Yazidi women speak about unethical practices by journalists

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Journalists able to access ISIS members are under enormous pressure from editors at home to bring back stories on recent horrors: rape and enslavement of Yazidi women, mass executions, the brutal code of conduct forced onto civilians living under ISIS rule.

But it should be unacceptable for editors to encourage this work without sufficiently considering the risks. It’s a problem I have confronted over the last two years covering Iraq for Human Rights Watch, where the authorities will hand down a life sentence or a death penalty based on an accusation of ISIS membership, often after security forces extract a confession, sometimes using torture. News organizations should not be complicit in this process, either by taking part in an inherently coercive interview or broadcasting accounts by identifiable people who could not freely consent.

A BBC Three video posted in February shows a Yazidi woman who was held as an ISIS sex slave interviewing a named ISIS suspect, again in the presence of KRG forces. He tells her in Arabic that he raped and killed hundreds of women and girls, describing some acts in excruciating detail. Again, the guard’s presence is a risk. The outlet asked the detainee to confess on camera, before he has even been convicted. What steps did they take to ensure that he would not be threatened or beaten because of what he said to them?


He did not have a choice in being filmed; now his face and name are associated with ISIS.


The BBC said that it takes great care when interviewing prisoners. “Our editorial guidelines are very clear that BBC content must respect human dignity,” a spokesperson said in response to our concerns. “We would not accept invitations to interview prisoners unless we were confident that they had not been coerced.”

But consent, from a human rights perspective, is a difficult thing to be sure of, and something that newsrooms should be more transparent about. How did the editors assess that his agreeing to the interview counted as free and informed consent? Why did they decide not to obscure his identity? And was there consideration of the possible trauma that the woman might suffer, having been a victim?

In a CBC video about the reporting process behind ISIS interviews that aired in December, an Iraqi army major tells the crew to stop recording. He then, the CBC correspondent says in the segment, kicks and slaps a blindfolded ISIS detainee for refusing to admit on camera to acts of violence; the major says he will kill the prisoner if he doesn’t tell the truth, while the detainee maintains he was just a cook for ISIS. In the segment, the correspondent explains this abusive treatment by saying that, in his experience, policing in the Middle East differs from policing in Canada. The interview appeared to precipitate this attack on the detainee, so what steps did the crew take to protect him from any further abuse after what he said on camera? Nothing in this video suggests that the detainee had a choice about consenting to the interview.

A spokesperson for CBC says both men specifically agreed to be identified and noted that the digital story included links to a Human Rights Watch report on abuse of detainees.

The practice is not limited to Iraq. In Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces allied to US-led, anti-ISIS forces have also given journalists access to certain ISIS detainees, including two very high-profile ISIS suspects. These stories were of wide interest: the men, El Shafee el-Sheikh and Alexanda Kotey, are accused of holding and helping to execute Western hostages, including journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The men, neither of whom have lawyers, were asked about the horrendous crimes they are accused of committing.

In what is reported to be el-Sheikh’s first TV interview, for al-Aan channel, he seemed aware of the possibility that he might later be prosecuted based on these recordings; when asked about his personal involvement in various crimes, including torture and mock executions, el-Sheikh responded: “There’s an ongoing legal process and when they decide to get along with it then we can talk about any accusations made against me.” Few detainees exhibit such awareness.

My colleagues at Human Rights Watch and I have extensively documented the lack of adequate legal representation for ISIS suspects—as have many reporters. There have been trials where defendants said they were tortured to confess involvement with ISIS. Even if detainees branded as ISIS members are later released without charge, they may face retaliation from local communities.

In October 2014, CBS broadcast a clip of interviews it conducted in northern Syria with three detainees, one aged 15, in the presence of their guards. They are blindfolded but the journalist identifies them by name. One detainee is visibly shaking and raises his hands to protect his face, telling her he thought he was being taken for beating when he was brought in for the interview.

A CBS spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that the reporter made clear the circumstances in which the reporter was conducting the interview, adding that CBS does not discuss its editorial process.

In June 2016, Vice published a video of Iraqi troops and related militias carrying out operations to retake Fallujah from ISIS, showing multiple scenes of Iraqi forces capturing and interrogating alleged ISIS members without obscuring the captives’ identities. In one scene, a commander gathers the men of the village, lists the names of suspected ISIS members, and detains some when crowd members affirm their guilt. These were men merely accused of ISIS membership, but even if a judge later clears them and orders their release, they have been publicly labelled as ISIS and they (and their families) could suffer serious, even fatal, consequences.

In footage taken near Mosul that year, a Vice video shows KRG forces capturing and interrogating a man they believe to be ISIS, forcing him to say his name on camera. He did not have a choice in being filmed; now his face and name are associated with ISIS.

The risks don’t only affect ISIS suspects. One study found that some journalists pressured Yazidi women and girls who survived rape and kidnappings by ISIS to grant interviews. Journalists should be aware of re-traumatization—the psychological and physical toll on survivors from repeatedly telling their stories. Some women have said journalists promised them money or aid, or didn’t make clear that they would reveal their identities and show their faces, putting the women and their relatives at risk of stigma and further harm.

The international community writ large portrays ISIS as the “most evil” group, often using dehumanizing language about ISIS suspects. I have listened to military commanders and civil servants from countries in the anti-ISIS coalition use this to explain away horrific war crimes committed by Iraqi forces against ISIS suspects. This status shouldn’t influence how journalists cover ISIS prisoners. Instead, reporters need to be vigilant in protecting their subjects. Don’t interview with guards present. Get free and informed consent. Don’t show suspects’ faces. Don’t name suspects. 

At Human Rights Watch we face similar concerns. We don’t want to contribute to violations of the Geneva Conventions, which obligate national armies and armed groups to treat everyone in custody humanely, including by not exposing prisoners to “public curiosity,” as in a television interview, and affording special protections to detained children. We minimize the risks as best we can to those we interview—and we don’t interview them at all if circumstances don’t safely permit it. Getting this wrong can put lives at risk.

Editor’s note: Due to the concerns over safety, CJR has chosen not to link to the segments mentioned above. See also a related story, on interviewing Yazidi women, in CJR.

Belkis Wille is the senior Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch.