At Least NPR's Plagiarizing Intern Went to the Event He Wrote About

Ahmad Shafi, the NPR intern whose story about witnessing an execution in Kabul was taken down because it too closely resembled another story from 2001 won't be leaving the network or facing any disciplinary action, at least until a review of the rest of his work concludes.

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Ahmad Shafi, the NPR intern whose story about witnessing an execution in Kabul was taken down because it too closely resembled another story from 2001 won't be leaving the network or facing any disciplinary action, at least until a review of the rest of his work concludes. But, as NPR spokeswoman Anna Christopher told The Atlantic Wire, Shafi will not be writing until then either. As NPR's statement notes, Shafi lifted passages in his story from the work of another journalist, Jason Burke, but from what we've learned talking to those involved, he appears to have been at the 1998 event he wrote about but used someone else's language to describe it.

NPR's ethics code describes plagiarism as an "unforgivable offense," but Christopher told The Atlantic Wire that every case was different, and that Shafi, who worked as a fixer and producer for NPR's Kabul bureau before coming to Washington D.C. as an intern, was "here for the purpose of learning, and, if anything, this is a very public learning experience." Christopher described Shafi as apologetic and contrite when confronted,"which goes a long way," she added.

Shafi's piece, "A Taliban Execution Brings Back Painful Memories," tells the story of how he witnessed an execution in Kabul in 1998 while working as a fixer for a British journalist. NPR explained in its editor's note with which it replaced Shafi's story on its main site that "portions of the piece were copied from a story by Jason Burke, published by the London Review of Books in March 2001." Indeed, some of the language in the two stories is very similar, as Poynter's Steve Myers, who first noticed the editor's note on Tuesday, illustrates in its post. (All bolds added by Myers):

From Burke:

He was made to squat in front of one of the goals. He had no blindfold or hood and I could see lank, dark hair and thin features. The soldiers had tied his hands behind his back though he made no attempt to escape.

From Shafi:

He was forced to kneel in front of the goal post. He had no blindfold and I could see his pale face, dark hair and thin features. The Taliban soldiers tied his arms behind his back, though he made no attempt to escape.

But unlike this summer's other intern-related journalism mini scandal, in which Liane Membis, a Wall Street Journal intern fabricated quotes, Shafi does not appear to have manufactured what he saw at the 1998 execution in Kabul. Christopher told Poynter that Shafi was there. He says in his own piece that he was there with a female British journalist, and that they were "were taken onto the field, close to one goal post." He describes candy vendors and the green pickup truck bringing in the condemned. And how he ran for the exit after the man was killed.

Burke, who writes for The Guardian and Observer as a South Asia correspondent, told The Atlantic Wire from  the U.K. that he sat in the stands at the same location. He said he'd gone to the 1998 execution with a fixer, but he couldn't remember who it was, and that Shafi's name didn't ring a bell. "It would be wrong of me, without my notes in front of me, to say either way who that person was. There were a lot of fixers. Many of my Kabul fixers I do remember," Burke said. The executions, he said were regular occurrences. "They were open to the public. There was always a large crowd or hundreds if not thousands there." So Shafi could very well have been there in the capacity of fixer for another journalist, he said. "It’s a big stadium and there was a biggish crowd." Shafi writes that he "ran toward the exit" after the execution, a detail Burke couldn't remember, though he said he walked out slowly, feeling "rather numbed."

The Wall Street Journal's intern, and a reporter fired from the New Canaan News in Connecticut last month, both fabricated information. Shafi simply plagiarized someone else's copy to describe something he apparently saw for himself. Which is the worse crime against journalism? Based on the responses by the various news organizations, it's the fabrication, but what sort of impact this will have on Shafi's career has not yet been decided.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.