Over the course of one month, three separate stories from our International desk – reported on the ground in Iraq, Thailand and South Africa – helped lead to immediate reforms.
Capt. Harith al-Sudani, Iraq’s most successful spy, died behind enemy lines and his body was never recovered. His grieving family needed proof of his death in order to get the benefits owed to a fallen serviceman. For a year their requests were stymied by Iraq’s slow-moving bureaucracy.
Margaret Coker, The Times’s Baghdad bureau chief, spent five months reporting Captain Sudani’s story. Twelve hours after her article was published, an assistant to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called the Sudanis’ home in Baghdad, offering to intervene on their behalf. A few days later, the family was told a formal death certificate would be issued.
Two other recent articles from our international desk also were followed by swift action: one by Hannah Beech, our Southeast Asia bureau chief, on the uproar over a case of a child bride in Malaysia; and one by Norimitsu Onishi, our Johannesburg bureau chief, and Selam Gebrekidan, a foreign correspondent based in London, on the lack of school sanitation in South Africa.
The Iraqi Spy
Ms. Coker’s article details how Captain Sudani infiltrated the Islamic State and foiled dozens of vehicle bombings and suicide attacks. It was picked up by local media in Baghdad hours after it published on The Times’s website, and was trending on Iraqi Twitter and talked up on evening talk shows.
“Over the last 15 years of bloodshed, civil war and grief, Iraqis have been in desperate need of a hero,” Ms. Coker wrote in an email. “Captain Sudani’s story is the manifestation of the best parts of their culture and society – aspects of Iraqi life that are rarely acknowledged or described, especially in the Western press.”
So when she learned that officials would hear the Sudani family’s case, Ms. Coker was overjoyed: “The pain of losing a child is tough enough without the agony of a bureaucratic maze that denies you the recognition of your loss. This breakthrough was the best part of the storytelling – we got to update it with a happier ending.”
The Malaysian child bride
The marriage of an 11-year-old girl, known as Ayu, to the father of her best friend, a Malaysian man 30 years her senior, set off a firestorm that caught the attention of international media, including The New York Times. The outcry over the marriage, which made the girl the stepmother of her best friend, also prompted a discussion – from social media to Parliament – about the morality of child marriages in Malaysia, where they are allowed in certain cases. (Though born in Thailand, Ayu grew up in Malaysia, where her father relocated the family for his work.)
Ms. Beech communicated with the parties at the center of the debate: Che Abdul Karim Che Abdul Hamid, the prosperous rubber trader who married Ayu, and various members of his family including his second wife, who after learning about his third marriage posted a photo of the couple that went viral.
“Our story received a lot of attention in Malaysia,” Ms. Beech wrote in an email. “I think a lot of Malaysians are embarrassed by the enduring phenomenon of child marriage; they don’t want their country to be known for this. They would like their laws to reflect a more modern society. However, there is another group of people who believe that federal laws should not conflict with Shariah law and other legal statutes.”
A few weeks after the Times article was published, Thai government officials notified Ms. Beech that Ayu had been returned to her native Thailand with her parents and was in the care of social welfare services.
The South African school sanitation crisis
After two children drowned in pit toilets (rudimentary latrines dug into the ground) at a school in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, The Times’s Norimitsu Onishi and Selam Gebrekidan investigated the crumbling education system that led to their deaths.
Their article pointed a finger at South Africa’s deputy president, David Mabuza, who is the former premier of the province, “where millions of dollars for education have disappeared into a vortex of suspicious spending, shoddy public construction and brazen corruption to fuel his political ambitions, according to government records and officials in his party.”
Ten days after the Times article was published, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the launch of a new program, the Sanitation Appropriate for Education Initiative, to tackle the issue.
The long-term impact of the actions taken in response to these three Times articles is uncertain.
An Iraqi official acknowledged that there are dozens of families like the Sudanis, who are struggling to overcome bureaucratic hurdles in order to obtain death benefits.
Activists say the initiative introduced by South Africa’s president is not enough to solve the country’s sanitation crisis, as 4,000 schools are still equipped with deadly pit toilets.
And while Ayu was separated from her husband through Thai intervention, the issue of child marriages in Malaysia has yet to be resolved, even if the government says it’s working toward raising the minimum age of unions to 18. Ms. Beech said that many Malaysians are disturbed that no governmental body stepped in right away to protect girls like Ayu.
Still, Michael Slackman, The Times’s International editor, stressed that the fact that these stories had immediate impact in a relatively short amount of time signals the power of the press to sway change.
“Our journalism had a tangible impact on the lives of people in three countries, on two continents,” he said.
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