The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) last year received very newsworthy documents relating to China’s treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China. The papers were sensitive and required a lot of followup, so ICIJ did what it does best: It convened an international partnership of news organizations to vet, confirm and report on them.

Interest was high: More than 75 journalists from 17 outlets ended up participating in the effort. Among them: the New York Times, NBC News, the Associated Press, the Guardian, El País and Irish Times.

As the consortium was steaming toward publication in November, something weird happened: The New York Times, a partner in the Xinjiang effort, preempted the 17-outlet partnership with a separate investigation on the very same topic. “ ‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims,” read the headline on the Nov. 16, 2019, story by New York Times reporters Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley. The piece drew from 400-plus pages of Chinese documents that “offer a striking picture of how the hidden machinery of the Chinese state carried out the country’s most far-reaching internment campaign since the Mao era,” they wrote.

“Striking” is about right. “Round up everyone who should be rounded up,” exhorted a Chinese official regarding the internment goals, according to the story. The internment operation has targeted Muslim Uighurs, who speak a Central Asian Turkic language and number about 10 million in Xinjiang. As the story notes, the Chinese government has long sought to respond to the Uighur opposition to central rule: “The current crackdown began after a surge of anti-government and anti-Chinese violence, including ethnic riots in 2009 in Urumqi, the regional capital, and a May 2014 attack on an outdoor market that killed 39 people just days before Mr. Xi convened a leadership conference in Beijing to set a new policy course for Xinjiang.”

A week later, the consortium published its series — “China Cables" — on the Xinjiang internment camps, also based on Chinese documents. The leaked papers, noted the ICIJ series, “uncovered the operations manual for running the mass detention camps in Xinjiang and exposed the mechanics of the region’s Orwellian system of mass surveillance and ‘predictive policing.’ ” The Chinese government has disputed the existence of these camps, insisting, instead, that they are “vocational education and training centres" where “trainees could go home regularly and ask for leave to take care of their children. If a couple are both trainees, their minor children are usually cared for by their relatives, and the local government helps take good care of the children.”

Yeah, right. A manual revealed by ICIJ helps color in the truth about these facilities:

The manual emphasizes that personnel must “prevent escapes” and mandates the use of guard posts, patrols, video surveillance, alarms and other security measures typical of prisons. Dormitory doors must be double-locked to “strictly manage and control student activities to prevent escapes during class, eating periods, toilet breaks, bath time, medical treatment, family visits, etc.,” the manual says.
“Students” are permitted to leave the camps only for reasons of “illness and other special circumstances,” it says, and camp personnel are required to “accompany, monitor, and control them” while away.
The memo also includes the provision — not always enforced, according to some former inmates — that detainees must remain in the camps for at least a year.

The ICIJ report links to the New York Times report from the previous week: “A recent New York Times article shed light on the historical lead-up to the camps.”

That the New York Times was working on its own Xinjiang-Uighur story while also working in a partnership on a Xinjiang-Uighur story generated enough displeasure among the ICIJ partners that top NYT editors were forced to explain themselves. “While our report was based on internal documents provided directly to us by a member of the Chinese political establishment [in early 2019], the subject was similar to our joint project with the ICIJ,” reads a late 2019 memo from Executive Editor Dean Baquet, Managing Editor Joe Kahn and Deputy Managing Editor Matthew Purdy. “We should have alerted the group to our ongoing efforts on Xinjiang prior to joining the collaborative effort in September. We also should have consulted with the group on the timing of the story we published, especially given the proximity to the target date of publication for the ICIJ work.”

“We apologize for that oversight. We are committed to working together constructively with the group and will take steps to ensure that kind of miscommunication is not repeated,” notes the memo, which goes on to say that the newspaper’s reporters were working on their Xinjiang exclusive “many months” before the collaboration with the consortium began. “The documents were in our possession, we had verified their authenticity through painstaking reporting and the correspondents had already filed drafts of articles before the ICIJ invited us in September into the current collaboration,” the Times editors write.

The Times had expected to publish its own Xinjiang story long before the ICIJ collaboration, but chalked up a delay to a number of factors — including a “multimedia production" that took "longer than anticipated”; what other sort of “multimedia production” is there? “The editors who initially discussed collaborating on Xinjiang with the ICIJ were not among those overseeing our other project on Xinjiang, and no one flagged the potential conflict to us,” reads the memo.

One reporter at the Times worked on both the paper’s exclusive and on the ICIJ partnership — with instructions to “keep the two projects separate.” That mandate — not to mix these two pieces in any way — may have “contributed to a misimpression that The Times was trying to keep its work secret from the ICIJ, or, worse, to use the ICIJ documents to advance the story we were doing on our own,” says the memo.

New York Times Managing Editor Joe Kahn tells the Erik Wemple Blog that the low levels of communication within the newspaper were no accident. Information on the pending Xinjiang project within the New York Times was “compartmentalized” to protect the safety of journalists working a story of high sensitivity to the Chinese government. “The caution with which we treated the materials and reporters and sources for the story is what accounts for the lack of communication,” says Kahn, who also points out that the Times had previously published deeply reported pieces on the topic.

Asked to comment on the situation, ICIJ Director Gerard Ryle told the Erik Wemple Blog via email, “Honestly, we don’t know what happened at the NYT. We weren’t there and we were focused on our own project,” said Ryle. “What we do know is the NYT ran a competing story a week ahead of our project while they were a member of our project and had access to our production schedule and shared reporting and other material.” Bolding added to highlight a key question: Did the New York Times use that access to beat out the ICIJ investigation? Nope, says Kahn: “Our story was in no way timed to be published just before the ICIJ story was intended to be published,” he says.

The ICIJ collaboration itself, says Ryle, was delayed on account of “safety concerns of partner colleagues in China.”

“In a note to us and our partners, Dean Baquet and his deputies describe their failure as a communications problem and offered an apology. We acknowledge the apology," wrote Ryle.

ICIJ has scored some high-profile successes in rounding up media organizations to produce world-changing journalism. In 2016, it worked with more than 100 news organizations around the world on the Panama Papers, which exposed the self-dealing ways of global financial and political elites. A team of 250 journalists in 36 countries mounted a wide-ranging investigation of the medical-device industry — the “Implant Files” — resulting, among other things, in a helpful database for consumers. A recent collaboration, which included the New York Times, exposed the wealth and “unscrupulous deals” activities of Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s wealthiest woman.

Citing collaborative projects with WikiLeaks and ICIJ, Kahn says the Times has a well-established record of respecting these arrangements. “We would never take steps that intentionally front-run our partners in a collaboration,” says Kahn.

“This model requires a special kind of trust — that’s really what holds all of us together,” says Ryle.

That’s an understatement. Journalists are greedy monsters. They want this investigative bombshell, that collaboration; this embargoed press release, that exclusive interview. Too bad the Times didn’t properly assess its own appetites — and its own pipeline — when it forged the ICIJ collaboration on Xinjiang.

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