NEW YORK -– Vice News editor-in-chief Jason Mojica shot down an accusation Thursday night that his news organization may have "colluded" with militants from the Islamic State, or ISIS, in order to gain access for its recent, widely praised documentary.
“I can certainly say that there is no collusion between Vice News and the Islamic State as much as there is a bit of sparring and each of us probably trying to get something different out of [the experience],” Mojica said.
Mojica made his comments during an NYU panel in response to a question from journalist Gil Shefler, which was followed by another member of the audience accusing Vice News of collusion. The panel, moderated by The New York Times' Amy O'Leary, featured editors from several outlets that are currently expanding their international footprints: Mojica, BuzzFeed foreign editor Miriam Elder and Mashable global news editor Louise Roug.
Prior to the audience Q&A, O’Leary raised the issue of access and whether Vice News had possibly aided the propaganda efforts of the Islamic State, an organization that hasn’t permitted any other western journalists to report openly in areas it controls and recently beheaded journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
“In the case of 'The Islamic State,' that was a very unique case and it comes with, of course, conditions in order to get in and get out with your life,” Mojica said. “You understand you’re operating under a very peculiar set of rules.”
Mojica declined to elaborate when asked what "conditions,” specifically, were agreed upon with the militants. But he said that Vice News tried to reveal as much as possible about how it filmed in Syria and suggested there wasn’t a need to overtly label what was being shown as propaganda.
“You understand you’re being brought around from place to place by a tour guide, by a press officer and things like that,” Mojica said. “It may be a little subtle. We don’t hit you over the head with it. But our goal isn’t to stand there in voiceover, sit there and say, ‘Well, this is obviously propaganda.’ We have enough trust in our audience to be able to kind of read between the lines.”
In early August, Kevin Sutcliffe, Vice’s head of news programming in Europe, told The Huffington Post that "Islamic State" filmmaker Medyan Dairieh was able to gain access to the group through his deep contacts in the region and because its members were familiar with the two previous films he made inside civil war-torn Syria.
Sutcliffe acknowledged at the time that Dairieh hadn't been able to travel freely during his reporting trip inside Syria and was always accompanied by a minder from the Islamic State. “These are managed trips, so you are there with their permission,” Sutcliffe said.
It was clear in the five-part documentary that Dairieh had been led around by press officer Abu Mosa, who was reportedly killed last month by Syrian government forces.
In a way, Vice News staffers' dealings were similar to those of journalists who embed with the U.S. military, in that they were restricted from venturing off unaccompanied. But with the U.S. military, there is an established protocol and application process for embedding journalists. That's not the case with the Islamic State, which is better known for killing journalists than opening up to them, so Vice News' ability to strike any sort of deal with the group has understandably raised questions about the conditions involved.
Given that Islamic State militants controlled Dairieh’s movements while on the ground, it might be assumed they also vetted the video he shot before allowing him to leave. However, a Vice News spokesman told The Huffington Post that the Islamic State did not see the video in advance -- perhaps because the group already knew exactly where he'd been, since he was always accompanied by a minder.
Near the end of the panel, Mojica explained why both the news outlet and subject would have something to gain from striking a deal for access.
“I think that every interaction between a journalist and a subject is basically an act of combat in which two parties are both trying to get very different things out of a shared experience,” Mojica said. “I think that the folks in the Islamic State are not dumb. So I have to assume they have their reasons for giving us the access that they did.”
Speaking hypothetically, he said Islamic State militants might have been familiar with Vice News' immersive style, which is more about presenting what's happening on the ground rather than making an overt judgment about it. Indeed, Islamic State members who appeared in the film were able to voice their views at length.
As for why Vice News would agree to conditions, he said, the reason was to “gain access to a seemingly impossible situation.”
This article has been updated to identify a questioner in the audience as journalist Gil Shefler.