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Newsweek report sparks riots

Magazine's attempt at damage-control ducks responsibility. The blame is on extremists and economy. Newsweek calls its deadly source "knowledgeable."





May 13, 2005: What TIME does, NEWSWEEK can't be far behind. So, we were not surprised when the Time magazine's goof-up on Prince Rainer's death was followed up by NEWSWEEK recently, when it reported that the Holy Quran was flushed out in the toilet as part of pressure tactics to make Muslim prisoners talk at the Guntanamo detention centre run by the US in Cuba. The NEWSWEEK report sparked riots and arson in Islamic countries, leading to the death of 15 people in Afghanstan and protests across the Muslim world. 

The disputed article appeared in the Periscope section in NEWSWEEK, where it was mentioned that an investigative agency found that guards at Guantanamo used pressure tactics like flushing the Holy Quran down the toilet to make them talk. The holy book is treated with utmost respect among Muslims, which is why the incorrect report triggered violence.

The Pentagon told the magazine the report was wrong last Friday, saying it had investigated earlier allegations of Koran desecration from detainees and found them "not credible."

However, NEWSWEEK quickly came up with a half-hearted apology in its latest issue, which has appeared on news stands today. More than sounding apologetic, it came across more as an attempt to palm off responsibility to the magazine's source, extremists and economy.

Says NEWSWEEK editor Mike Whitaker in his semi-apology: "Two weeks ago, in our issue dated May 9, Michael Isikoff and John Barry reported in a brief item in our Periscope section that U.S. military investigators had found evidence that American guards at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had committed infractions in trying to get terror suspects to talk, including in one case flushing a Qur'an down a toilet. Their information came from a knowledgeable U.S. government source, and before deciding whether to publish it we approached two separate Defense Department officials for comment. One declined to give us a response; the other challenged another aspect of the story but did not dispute the Qur'an charge."

"Although other major news organizations had aired charges of Qur'an desecration based only on the testimony of detainees, we believed our story was newsworthy because a U.S. official said government investigators turned up this evidence. So we published the item. After several days, newspapers in Pakistan and Afghanistan began running accounts of our story. At that point, as Evan Thomas, Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai report this week, the riots started and spread across the country, fanned by extremists and unhappiness over the economy."

"Last Friday, a top Pentagon spokesman told us that a review of the probe cited in our story showed that it was never meant to look into charges of Qur'an desecration. The spokesman also said the Pentagon had investigated other desecration charges by detainees and found them "not credible." Our original source later said he couldn't be certain about reading of the alleged Qur'an incident in the report we cited, and said it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts. Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we. But we regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst."

NEWSWEEK's description of its "source" would have sounded hilarious, had it not been cruel. Whitaker calls the source who landed him in a soup "knowledgeable". We think "ignorant", "mischievous" or "uninformed" would have been a better way of describing the deadly source. 

Like any run-of-the-mill journalist would do, the NEWSWEEK journalists dialled two other "sources" for confirmation of the story. Neither of them confirmed it. NEWSWEEK ran story anyway. Fifteen people died. NEWSWEEK blames extremists and the economy for the riots and killing. 

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita reacted angrily when NEWSWEEK asked him about the source's continued assertion that he had read about the Koran incident in an investigative report. "People are dead because of what this son of a bitch said. How could he be credible now?" DiRita wondered.

Son-of-a-bitch or knowledgeable source? Newsweek has a problem making the distinction. We don't have.



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