Reporter says story on Minnesota website linking Syrian rebels to chemical weapons wasn't hers

  • Article by: MITCHELL PROTHERO , McClatchy Foreign Staff
  • Updated: September 22, 2013 - 8:06 PM

A Minnesota-based news site said no when freelancer asked it to drop her byline from a controversial article, saying it “would not be honest journalism.”

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EDS NOTE: GRAPHIC CONTENT - This citizen journalism image provided by the Local Committee of Arbeen which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian citizens receiving treatment after an alleged poisonous gas attack fired by regime forces, according to activists in Arbeen town, Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. Syrian regime forces fired intense artillery and rocket barrages Wednesday on the eastern suburbs of the capital Damascus, in what two pro-opposition groups claimed was a "poisonous gas" attack that killed dozens of people. (AP Photo/Local Committee of Arbeen)

 

– A freelance contributor to the Associated Press whose byline appeared on a controversial story that alleged Syrian rebels had gassed themselves in an accident told McClatchy this weekend that she did not write the article and has been seeking to have her name removed from it since it was published by a small, Minnesota-based website.

Dale Gavlak, a longtime contributor from the Middle East for AP, released an e-mail statement to McClatchy and several blogs on Saturday denying any role in reporting the story, which was published Aug. 29 by Mint Press News, an operation founded last year by a St. Cloud State University graduate and which describes itself with the phrase “independent advocacy journalism.” The article carried Gavlak’s byline along with that of Yahya Ababneh, a Jordanian Arab-language journalist.

The story likely would have gone unnoticed in pre-Internet days. But thanks to social media, it’s become a crucial piece of evidence for those arguing that the rebels, not the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, were most likely responsible for an Aug. 21 chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs.

Within hours of the story’s release, Mint Press’ website crashed from excessive traffic. The story continues to be cited by conspiracy-minded websites and supporters of the embattled Assad government in the wake of a U.N. investigation whose findings, many say, implicate the Syrian military.

In a phone conversation Saturday, Gavlak, whose AP connection is often held up as evidence of the reliability of the Mint Press story, confirmed the statement and described a timeline in which she had been trying for weeks to get Mint Press to remove her name from the story. Gavlak referred to her e-mailed statement in the interview, saying she could not go much beyond it for legal reasons.

“Mint Press News incorrectly used my byline for an article it published on August 29, 2013, alleging chemical weapons usage by Syrian rebels,” the statement reads. “Despite my repeated requests, made directly and through legal counsel, they have not been willing to issue a retraction stating that I was not the author.”

“Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author of the Mint Press News piece,” the statement added. “I did not travel to Syria, have any discussions with Syrian rebels, or do any other reporting on which the article is based. The article is not based on my personal observations and should not be given credence based on my journalistic reputation.”

Because of the incident, Gavlak and at least one other contributor to Mint Press News have ended their relationships with the website, which was founded nearly two years ago by Mnar Muhawesh, 26.

Mint Press statement

Muhawesh, who was described in a 2012 story on the MinnPost website as the daughter of Palestinian immigrants who graduated from college with a degree in journalism, did not respond Saturday to requests for comment left on her cellphone and sent to her Twitter and e-mail accounts. Nor could she be reached Sunday by the Star Tribune.

However, she released a statement on Saturday night in which she said Gavlak and Ababneh had both come under pressure to disavow the story.

“We are aware of the tremendous pressure that Dale and some of our other journalists are facing as a result of this story, and we are under the same pressure as a result to discredit the story,” the statement said. “We are unwilling to succumb to those pressures, for MintPress holds itself to the highest journalistic ethics and reporting standards.”

The statement later said: “We hold Dale Gavlak in the highest esteem and sympathize with her for the pressure she is receiving, but removing her name from the story would not be honest journalism …”

Gavlak produced a series of e-mails detailing her unsuccessful attempt to have Mint News either clarify the article’s background or remove it from the site. The e-mails began almost immediately after publication of the story on Aug. 29 and continued until Sept. 2.

The initial e-mail detailing the filing of the story — Gavlak admits to helping Ababneh convert his Arabic reporting into English — reads “Pls find the Syria story I mentioned uploaded on Google Docs. This should go under Yahya Ababneh’s byline. I helped him write up his story but he should get all the credit for this.”

After seeing the story published under her name and the amount of interest it was generating — in large part because of the credibility lent to it by her relationship with AP, which bills itself as the “world’s oldest and largest newsgathering organization” — Gavlak demanded her name be removed. Muhawesh refused.

“We will not be removing your name from the byline as this is an existential issue for MintPress and an issue of credibility as this will appear as though we are lying,” Gavlak said Muhawesh responded.

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