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Latest threat to journalists covering Syria: Identity fraud

Demonstrators are seen through a Syrian opposition flag during a protest against President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo on 15 April 2013
Demonstrators are seen through a Syrian opposition flag during a protest against President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo on 15 April 2013

REUTERS/Giath Taha

As if it were not enough that journalists covering the Syrian conflict have been targeted for kidnap or attack, killed by bombs and threatened with their lives, their enemies have a new tactic: Using social media to put inflammatory words in their mouths and a price on their heads.

On March 31, Kuwaiti Fahim Saqr, went on Syrian state television to offer the equivalent of $141,700 (about €108,665) to anyone who captured Al Arabiya or Al Jazeera journalists, according to a report on Al Arabiya's website. Saqr was allegedly quoted as saying: “These people mislead Syrian citizens inside and outside the country, mislead the Arab world and mislead the whole world with their false reporting, which aims to fragment the country and Syria's social fabric.”

Many international media, including the pan-Arabic stations Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, have been criticized, to varying degrees, for pushing a clear anti-regime agenda in their coverage of Syria. The Syrian government and its loyalists are their biggest detractors. They have accused stations of fabricating or instigating anti-government demonstrations or protests.

On the other side, Syrian state-owned and pro-government media have repeatedly been accused of downplaying the scale of opposition and of referring to all political opponents as terrorists.

In either case, journalists are journalists and the real damage begins when criticism of media coverage descends into death threats and incitement. For example, Yilmaz Akinci, an Al Jazeera producer, said that he and many colleagues working for Arabic news media have been described as “terrorists” on Syrian state media. “They say we broadcast our pictures from studios that we set up in the desert.”

The fact remains that it is not easy to report on Syrian events. It is terribly dangerous, as the deaths of over 45 journalists since the start of the conflict show. Journalists who want to get in to the country are often forced to embed either with loyalist forces or with a rebel group. Some outlets, unable to get in, rely on local activists as sources.

The result is that verification is difficult, and unverified information runs rampant through websites and social media, which are used by a proliferation of media activists and citizen journalists to transmit their work – and their opinions. (These online activists and bloggers, it should be noted, also work at great risk to their lives. According to the Syrian Journalists Association over 150 media workers including journalists, citizen reporters and media activists, have been killed since the start of the conflict).

Now, Al Jazeera journalists covering Syria say that amid the bloom of blogs and websites, false reports about them are going unchallenged, and they are being fingered for saying things on social media that they never actually said.

Anchor Ghada Oueiss, who spent a week reporting from the Syrian city of Aleppo in March and has subsequently faced death threats, told IPI that she and Al Jazeera have been the subject of extravagantly wrong reports whose citation and repetition are, she believes, endangering her life.

Oueiss said the “problem is most of these writings are totally inaccurate and full of fake stories,” but the “mushrooming” of Arab-language websites, which are difficult to monitor, “allows them to be perceived as facts”.

One story that Oueiss highlighted was an article on the website The article accuses Ghada Oueiss of helping to kidnap the father of a Syrian actress so that rebels could claim he had defected. Oueiss strongly denies that this ever occurred. “Of course neither I nor my team kidnapped anybody; we are journalists, not a gang or some kind of armed revolutionists,” she said in an email to IPI. (The website on which this article appeared was founded by Nizar Nayyouf, a Syrian journalist who was imprisoned for years prior to the revolution and named an IPI World Press Freedom Hero at the time).

Even more worryingly, Oueiss said there have been a profusion of fake Facebook accounts and at least one Twitter account that use her name, photograph and other parts of her identity. (In fact, Oueiss currently doesn't use Twitter at all). At the time of this writing, Al Jazeera had convinced Facebook to shut down the fake accounts, but the fake Twitter persona was still up and running.

Oueiss is not the only Al Jazeera journalist with this problem. Producer Akinci had a similar experience, though he also eventually convinced Facebook to close the account that was wrongfully using pictures of him.

And the phenomenon is not unique to Al Jazeera's journalists, either: In January 2013, the London-based Guardian newspaper reported that a slew of BBC Persian and Radio Farda journalists had been subjected to identity theft. “Cyber-activists linked to the Islamic republic have fabricated news, duplicated Facebook accounts and spread false allegations of sexual misconduct by exiled journalists,” the Guardian reported, noting that in fact an entire fake BBC Persian website had been set up, which “mirrors the BBC's site in design and fonts but has completely different content.”

As was the case for the Iranian journalists, Oueiss said the fake accounts in her name have been used to smear her reputation. The fake Ghadas engage in “biased and unprofessional” commentary against the Syrian government, which make “pro-regime people even more vicious and violent, posting more hate comments and death threats,” Oueiss told IPI.

One particularly egregious death threat arrived on March 16, 2013. One Facebook user offered a reward of $50,000 (about €38,343) for anyone who handed Oueiss over to the Syrian authorities “dead or alive,” according to reports and journalists.

In what appeared to be a response (and fairly incredible escalation), one of the fake Ghada Oueiss accounts then offered a reward of $ 1 million to anyone who kills Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to Oueiss and news reports.

The allegation that Oueiss made this and other statements has been repeated many times by news organizations, often as an example of Al Jazeera's alleged unprofessionalism. Oueiss, for her part, said she is “really devastated and cannot stop the wave of websites quoting my fake pages!”

Her fear, she said, is that the fake accounts and false reports “could lead to inappropriate actions by irresponsible fanatic persons” both within Syria and throughout the region.

IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said: “We condemn any death threats against any journalists, and are concerned by reports that fake social media accounts and websites have been used to provide fodder for those who would threaten journalists' lives.”

She said: “We recognize the value of satirical websites and accounts, and there is a need to protect speech even when it is ribald and insulting. With this in mind, while not infringing on freedom of expression, we call on Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies to be diligent in their efforts to respond swiftly to allegations of identity theft.”

They say the first victim of war is truth. In one sense, the era of instant information promotes truth because ugly secrets cannot be kept under wraps for long and misinformation is quickly challenged. But on the other hand, the speed and anonymity of the Internet also provide a platform for inaccuracies and even deliberate disinformation.

Journalists have at times been duped by fake social media accounts and have also been the target of online identity theft. That does not mean that new communication channels should be restricted – on the contrary, they must be protected at all costs. Instead, it shows that fact-checking, multiple sourcing and good journalism are more important than ever in separating fact from fiction.

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