WASHINGTON — Efforts to prove that Syrian rebels carried out an August 21 chemical attack in a Damascus suburb have prompted a host of media scandals, engulfing a longtime stringer for the Associated Press and respected blogger Brown Moses.
AP writer Dale Gavlak has demanded that Mint Press News, a small Minnesota-based publication, remove her byline from a controversial story alleging that Syrian rebels carried out the attack. In a statement to Syria blogger and researcher Elliot Higgins, also known as Brown Moses, Gavlak said that her co-byline on the story, Yahya Ababneh, "is the sole reporter and author of the Mint Press News piece" and that she had not done any of the reporting on which the article is based. Gavlak then released emails between herself and Mint Press in which she says "I helped [Ababneh] write up his story but he should get all the credit for this."
The story, "Syrians in Goutha claim Saudi-supplied rebels behind chemical attacks," was widely shared last week.
In a statement released to BuzzFeed, Mint Press editor Mnar Muhawesh said that the site would not remove Gavlak's byline and disputed Gavlak's assertion that she did not report out the story.
Gavlak pitched this story to MintPress on August 28th and informed her editors, Wyatt Miller and myself that her colleague Yahya Ababneh was on the ground in Syria. She said Ababneh conducted interviews with rebels, their family members, Ghouta residents and doctors that informed him through various interviews that the Saudis had supplied the rebels with chemical weapons and that rebel fighters handled the weapons improperly setting off the explosions."
When Yahya had returned and shared the information with her, she stated that she confirmed with several colleagues and Jordanian government officials that the Saudis have been supplying rebels with chemical weapons, but as her email states, she says they refused to go on the record.
Gavlak wrote the article in it's entirety as well as conducted the research. She filed her article on August 29th and was published on the same day.
Dale is under mounting pressure for writing this article by third parties. She notified MintPress editors, Wyatt Miller, Muhammad Muhawesh and myself on August 30th and 31st via email and phone call, that third parties were placing immense amounts of pressure on her over the article and were threatening to end her career over it. She went on to tell us that she believes this third party was under pressure from the head of the Saudi Intelligence Prince Bandar himself, who is alleged in the article of supplying the rebels with chemical weapons.
On August 30th, Dale asked MintPress to remove her name completely from the byline because she stated that her career and reputation was at risk. She continued to say that these third parties were demanding her to disassociate herself from the article or these parties would end her career.
On August 31st, I notified Dale through email that I would add a clarification that she was the writer and researcher for the article and that Yahya was the reporter on the ground, but did let Gavlak know that we would not remove her name as this would violate the ethics of journalism.
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. We are unwilling to succumb to those pressures for MintPress holds itself to the highest journalistic ethics and reporting standards.
Yahya has recently notified me that the Saudi embassy contacted him and threatened to end his career if he did a follow up story on who carried out the most recent chemical weapons attack and demanded that he stop doing media interviews in regards to the subject.
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 and therefore, as stated before, we are not willing to remove her name from the article.
We are prepared and may release all emails and communications made between MintPress and Dale Gavlak, and even Yahya to provide further evidence of what was provided to you in this statement.
The incident has raised questions about the motives of Mint Press, founded in 2012 by the then-24-year-old Muhawesh. A MinnPost profile from the time described a site focused on protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and stated that "Muhawesh does not claim objectivity — 'we want to fix the system,' she says, adding 'we want peace, not war' — but says as the site departs its trial week, reporters will seek out authorities, too." Muhawesh told BuzzFeed on Saturday that she is now the sole investor of Mint Press, though she started the website with multiple investors. She refused to reveal their identities to MinnPost last year.
The Syria story was so popular that it crashed Mint Press' servers, according to Antiwar.com, which reprinted and later retracted the story.
The Mint Press controversy follows on the heels of a disagreement between Brown Moses and Kremlin-backed network Russia Today over a video that the channel presented as documentation of rebels planning the August 21 chemical attack, using the fact that they were published Brown Moses blog as evidence of their legitimacy. In reality, Brown Moses had posted the videos on his blog in order to debunk them.
The regime of Bashar al-Assad on Saturday took the first step to implementing an agreement to hand over its chemical weapons by filing information on its stockpiles with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a U.N.-backed watchdog. In numerous interviews since the deal was broached, however, Assad, as well as his ally Vladimir Putin, have insisted that the regime did not carry out the attack, which U.S. intelligence says killed more than 1,400 people.