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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Reporter Denies Writing Article That Linked Syrian Rebels to Chemical Attack

Three weeks after an obscure Internet news service claimed that Syrian rebels had admitted responsibility for the deadly chemical attack outside Damascus in August, a veteran foreign correspondent whose name and reputation lent credibility to the story has denied writing the article.

The journalist, Dale Gavlak, is an American freelancer based in Jordan whose work has been published frequently by The Associated Press. In a statement sent first to the British blogger Eliot Higgins, who writes the highly-regarded Brown Moses blog, Ms. Gavlak insisted that her byline should never have been attached to the article, which was published on the Web site MintPress News on Aug. 29 under the headline, “Syrians in Ghouta Claim Saudi-Supplied Rebels Behind Chemical Attack.”

In a subsequent email to The Lede, Ms. Gavlak said that the article was based entirely on reporting by her friend Yahya Ababneh, a Jordanian journalist. Her only role, she said, was that she helped Mr. Ababneh translate his thoughts from Arabic to English. Ms. Gavlak added that MintPress, a start-up based in Minnesota, had refused “repeated demands” to remove her byline from the article, and she has now retained a lawyer to press her case.

While Ms. Gavlak said that she considers Mr. Ababneh to be “a reputable journalist,” she stressed in her note to The Lede: “There was no fact finding or reporting by me for the piece. I did not travel to Syria, so I cannot corroborate his account.” According to Ms. Gavlak, the 25-year-old editor-in-chief of MintPress, Mnar Muhawesh told her in writing: “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.”

Ms. Muhawesh, who founded the Minnesota-based site last year, disputed Ms. Gavlak’s account in a written response to questions from The Lede. The MintPress editor claimed that Ms. Gavlak first pitched the story and then “wrote the article in its entirety” after conducting additional reporting from Jordan, which seemed to confirm what Mr. Ababneh was told in Syria, “that the Saudis have been supplying rebels with chemical weapons.”

She added: “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.”

Mr. Ababneh has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Since late August, the MintPress report has been repeatedly characterized as an admission of guilt made by Syrian rebels to an “Associated Press correspondent” in the state-owned Russian media and by bloggers who defend the Syrian government and oppose American military intervention. Ms. Gavlak told The Lede that she has been suspended by The A.P. as a result of the article.

The article’s central claim, however, that hundreds died outside Damascus on Aug. 21 because Syrian rebels carrying poison gas in tubes and a “huge gas bottle” had “handled the weapons improperly and set off the explosions,” seems to have been undermined by the findings of United Nations weapons experts who visited the site of the chemical attack. As my colleagues Rick Gladstone and C.J. Chivers explained, information gathered by the U.N. inspectors suggested that poison gas in shells with Cyrillic markings was fired into rebel-held areas on the outskirts of Damascus from the direction of Syrian government forces.

The dispute over the article has caused even some contributors to MintPress to ask questions about its mission and how it is financed. Steve Horn, an investigative reporter based in Madison, Wis. said in an email that he has decided to cut ties to the news site as a result of Ms. Gavlak’s objections to how her name was used. “I departed because I feel I was misled about the credibility of the article â€" which I trusted largely because Dale’s name was on it â€" and because of that, I no longer feel it’s a credible outlet. Frankly, I’m not sure it ever was.”

Ms. Muhawesh, who studied journalism at St. Cloud State and worked briefly as an intern at a local news station before launching MintPress, declined to name the “retired businesspeople” who provided the financial backing for her site in an interview with the similarly named local news site MinnPost. She did say, though, that her Jordanian-born father, Odeh Muhawesh, was an important adviser.

Mr. Muhawesh is chief executive of a software company and an adjunct professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas. In one of his lectures on theology available on YouTube, Mr. Muhawesh describes himself as a former Sunni Muslim who converted to the Shiite sect. His personal Web site begins with a clear affirmation of his Shiite beliefs in a statement that says true peace, “according to my faith, will occur when Imam Mahdi, the 12th Imam, will appear along with the second coming of Jesus the Messiah.”

Observers and participants in the Syrian conflict are often on the look-out for even the slightest hint of sectarian bias in reports on events there. As the uprising in Syria has descended into a brutal civil war, the fighting has increasingly divided the country along sectarian lines, pitting the Sunni Muslim majority, supported by their coreligionists in the Gulf states, against President Bashar al-Assad’s esoteric Alawite sect and the Shiite minority, which is allied with the Shiite rulers of Iran and their proxy force in Lebanon, the Hezbollah militia.