Statement on Removal of ISIS Records from Iraq by New York Times Reporter

June 13, 2018—The Society of American Archivists (SAA) is deeply concerned about recent reports related to archival records in Iraq, specifically the April 4, 2018, New York Times article by Rukmini Callimachi in which Ms. Callimachi admits to removing more than 15,000 pages of Islamic State (ISIS) documents from Iraq.[1] Although we welcome the Times’s recent commitment to returning these records to the Iraqi government, this case still raises several important issues.

The New York Times code of ethics states that journalists “may not purloin data, documents or other property, including such electronic property as databases and email or voice mail messages.”[2] The plundering of the ISIS archives is a direct contravention of this important principle.

SAA objects to the Times’s plan to digitize and disseminate the ISIS records. The Times must give consideration to the human and privacy rights of the individuals whose lives are captured in the material. Public accessibility of this information could have harmful repercussions on private citizens. If the Times proceeds with this project, we urge it to partner with archivists and the Iraqi government to ensure that all due consideration is given to the citizens who may be harmed by the dissemination of these documents.

The 1954 Hague Convention for the protection of cultural property during armed conflict covers “manuscripts, books…of…historical…interest; as well as…important collections of books or archives” and requires parties to protect and safeguard such materials. Although the New York Times and its staff are not parties to this convention, we nevertheless believe that journalists in war zones must adhere to these internationally accepted standards. Indeed, the 1983 International Principles of Professional Ethics in Journalism, under Principle VIII: Respect for universal values and diversity of cultures, states that journalists should “be aware of relevant provisions contained in international conventions, declarations and resolutions.”[3]

Further, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics enjoins journalists to “be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.”[4] Although this is a commendable sentiment that the archives profession supports, we believe that respecting the integrity and documentary heritage represented by the ISIS archives should be paramount.

In 2008 the Society of American Archivists and the Association of Canadian Archivists released a statement calling for the U.S. government "to return to the lawfully established government of Iraq – with all deliberate speed – Iraqi records now in its possession. Moreover, the United States government has the responsibility to intercede, to the greatest extent possible, in ensuring the return of Iraqi records removed by private parties" due to its obligation under commonly shared international agreements and its own past practices.[5] Nothing in the intervening period has given SAA any reason to change this stance or to relieve private individuals from their responsibility to repatriate records to legal authorities once they have been removed from circumstances that would have resulted in their loss or destruction. As noted in recent reports, the issue of displaced archives from Iraq, and other conflict zones, continues to raise ethical issues and denies communities access to their documentary heritage.[6]

Archives preserve and provide access to the essential evidence of government, protect individuals’ rights, improve cultural knowledge and understanding, and ensure transparency and accountability of officials. Archives are the foundation by which a society can assess the past, think critically about the present, and consider directions for the future – and they should not be dispersed arbitrarily, no matter how noble one’s motives, by a single individual.

1 Comment(s) to the "Statement on Removal of ISIS Records from Iraq by New York Times Reporter"
ArchivesTHP says:
ISIS files

Readers of the SAA statement may also be interested in my blog post on the subject, written for the Human Rights Working Group of the International Council on Archives:

Trudy Huskmap Peterson

Certified Archivist