Three American journalists decided to do what many of their colleagues have done since the outbreak of the proxy war on the Syrian government: they traveled to the war-torn country to report what’s happening from the ground. But unlike the reporters who have made a name for themselves traipsing through some of the oldest cities in the world recently put under occupation by a miscellany of jihadist groups, these three journalists reported from areas under the control of the government.
For the industry of experts and journalists giving media cover to Syria’s jihadist insurgency, the three of them had once again crossed a line. And so the campaign to deplatform journalists Rania Khalek, Max Blumenthal, and Anya Parampil was renewed, beginning with false accusations that the trip was financed by the Syrian government.
Blumenthal, editor of The Grayzone, told MintPress News why he went to Syria in the first place:
The Western public has been subjected for eight years to an industrial-grade information war designed to sabotage their critical faculties and inculcate support for military interventions, proxy wars and economic sanctions.
The point is, according to Blumenthal:
To break the information blockade by going on the ground in countries targeted for regime change and ripping the curtain off of elaborate regime-change propaganda constructs. I accepted an invitation to attend the General Trade Union Forum in Syria with that mission in mind, and was able to go off on my own for several days in and around Damascus and hear from actual Syrians about their experiences during the war and how the escalating U.S. economic war was darkening their future.
At this point, the military conflict is virtually over, but U.S. sanctions are doing enormous damage to working class Syrians, while failing to scathe the government and its inner circle.”
Behind the campaign to silence these critical, anti-war journalists was the same cast of characters that have become notorious in progressive circles for the viciousness of their attacks — attacks against Khalek and Blumenthal in particular, but also against anyone willing to come out against regime change in Syria.
Khalek told MintPress News:
The harassment these people inspire and participate in is relentless. It varies from libel and smears to attacks on my physical safety. I’ve been doxxed and had my livelihood threatened. I’ve been deplatformed and fired. That is their goal.”
The tactics employed to silence these reporters have included death and rape threats, spurious lawsuits, threatening phone calls, pressure campaigns to have them fired, and persistent harassment against any institutions publishing their work or hosting their talks, books, or documentary tours. Parampil, who also reports at The Grayzone, told MintPress:
Twitter may seem like the world to some, but when I’m out in the field meeting real people I find that my position represents the majority. Whether in Syria, the U.S. or Venezuela, I’ve found a lot of support and an audience that is hungry for the kind of reporting we do… As long as I can continue to speak with the working people of the world and punch holes in the corporate, pro-war narrative, I am happy. Everything else is background noise.”
But over the week, the illiberal McCarthyite campaign reached a new level of depravity, when prominent media personalities began circulating a forged email accusing Khalek of being paid by a Syrian businessman on the U.S. sanctions list.
“I’m not at all surprised that those attacking me have resorted to posting fake emails. They are nasty and sleazy in their attacks; they continue to sink lower and lower,” Khalek said.
Introducing the Usual Suspects
While this informal group seeking to take down alternative journalists come from an array of think tank and media institutions, many of them — including artist Molly Crabapple and journalists Danny Gold and Oz Katerji — were associated with VICE News, an outlet that celebrated the NATO-backed jihadist assassination of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi and whitewashed neo-Nazi overtones out of its work in support of Ukraine’s Euromaidan insurgency. Those profiled in this section have participated in the attacks against the trio of journalists on Twitter.
Khalek told MintPress:
I’m being accused of supporting the Syrian government because I challenged the U.S. regime-change machine’s narrative and policy that sought to collapse the Syrian state and hand it over to a bunch of Islamist gangs, as was done with Libya. Anyone who questions the mainstream pro-war consensus should expect to be smeared and libeled. That is what the other side does to maintain hegemony over the discourse.
My approach to covering Syria has been my approach to all subjects: to challenge power, to challenge propaganda, and to challenge war They want to hide the reality that I’m trying to expose.”
But chief among the gaggle of prominent young regime-change propagandists is Charles Lister, whose role at the Middle East Institute (MEI) think tank in Washington has seen him vet so-called “moderate rebels” who have formed alliances with al-Qaeda. MEI, for its part, is funded by the United Arab Emirates, a Gulf petro-monarchy that has helped supply al-Qaeda with weapons in Syria. For Lister’s part, he has maintained that “al-Qaeda has really got it right” in Syria. He, like many of the other people who pounced on Khalek over the fake email, spent years promoting a now-suspended Twitter account, @ShamiWitness, as an expert on the Syrian conflict. The account, it turns out, belonged to ISIS and was used to recruit young men on the platform.
“Al-Qaeda has really got it right” – @Charles_Lister.
— Dan Cohen (@dancohen3000) September 16, 2018
The email purporting to show Khalek on the payroll of an individual sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department was published by a Syrian regime-change activist based out of Quebec named Noor Nahas. Its publication by Nahas appears to coincide with a hit piece in Tablet Magazine against an NGO worker in Damascus who has advocated for ceasefire agreements in the country, who is also accused of receiving illicit funding in the fake email.
Lister promoted both the hit piece and the forged email on his Twitter account, but deleted all of the tweets focusing on the fake email. In those deleted tweets, Lister could hardly contain himself and even attempted to tag the U.S. Treasury on Twitter in order to alert them to the alleged violation of U.S. sanctions by Khalek, an American citizen and journalist. After deleting the tweets, Lister removed himself from the discussion.
God, I’m tired of all this social media nonsense. Leave me out of it.
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) September 19, 2019
Journalist Danny Gold, another former promoter of the @ShamiWitness account, retweeted a number of attacks against Khalek over the forged email, on one occasion writing “this thread is a wild ride, and leads to documented evidence of some of the favorite Assadist reporters taking money from the regime to whitewash their crimes.”
Gold is infamous as among the most vicious of his associates. But he is no impartial voice on the Syrian conflict, given his affinity for having geeky conversations about a high-fantasy television series with al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra.
Molly Crabapple has cultivated a reputation as a bohemian artist fighting for freedom alongside the world’s oppressed. She got started with the Occupy Wall Street movement, but over the years a pattern emerged wherein she repeatedly championed State Department causes and narratives. Over the years she has painted portraits of everyone from Oz Katerji; to the neo-Nazi hacker Andrew Auernheimer, or “Weev;” to Syrian refugees.
Crabapple was indeed so pained by the plight of Syrians that she once doxxed a United Nations aid worker in Erbil, Iraq for writing about the war. She has also falsely accused this reporter of participating in a protest against the White Helmets that I was there to cover.
Crabapple falsely accused Parampil, Khalek, and Blumenthal of “prancing around Syria on a government luxury tour,” calling it “some Goebbels shit.”
Oz Katerji — like Crabapple, who is a former burlesque dancer — seems to have little prior background in international affairs. Katerji, once a Dubstep artist, went from writing profiles for VICE of “The Strangely Uplifting Tale of the Cam-Girl with No Vagina” to articles like “The Syrian Regime Is Using DIY Barrel Bombs Against Its Citizens.” For that piece, he interviewed Elliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, an outlet funded by the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. Katerji’s own ties to Bellingcat, where he was considered an official contributor, were left unmentioned in the piece.
Another Bellingcat member, senior investigator Nick Waters, homed in on a picture of Khalek in Damascus, writing that she was posing for the camera “only a couple of degrees away from the infamous Saydnaya prison, where tens of thousands of people have been tortured and executed.”
But that widely reported figure (it even made its way into the New York Times and an Amnesty International report) is credited to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a state-funded pro-opposition front group based out of Qatar, a country that has also fueled the crisis in Syria. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has lobbied the U.S. for military intervention.
Katerji has also promoted the ISIS Twitter recruitment account. As Kevin Gosztola points out at Shadowproof, Katerji has sworn to “never rest while” journalists countering the narrative on Syria “are given platforms or publishing opportunities.”
Idrees Ahmad is another journalist who has spent the past few days on Twitter relentlessly attacking Khalek, Blumenthal and Parampil, even getting a piece published on al-Jazeera attacking the trio. That’s the Idrees Ahmad whose blog has published attacks on this outlet and this reporter for raising questions about Jorge Ramos and his interview with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro; a story later vindicated as multiple holes emerged in Ramos’ story. Ahmad, unsurprisingly, also promoted the @ShamiWitness account.
— Max Blumenthal (@MaxBlumenthal) October 6, 2016
CNN reporter Clarissa Ward tweeted about the trip:
Started to read a certain ‘journalist’s’ thread from inside Damascus this AM, then found myself getting palpitations which progressed into spasms of rage. How can anyone be so blindly credulous? Are narcotics involved? It is such a disgrace.”
Ward’s fury may have been over the perceived credulty of the reporters on the trip, but it is more likely that she has an axe to grind against Blumenthal, who exposed how she had previously hired al-Qaeda propagandist Bilal Abdul Kareem to guide her through jihadist strongholds, where the “heroes” are “on the ground.” Kareem’s propaganda is so overt that he has even whitewashed a group of men on motorcycles waving ISIS flags as “civilians protesting.”
Alexander Reid Ross — a geography teacher who has made a name for himself in anti-fascist circles by attacking the likes of Blumenthal and Khalek over nebulous ties to fascists, using the tired “red-brown” technique — also participated in the Twitter pile-on.
Blumenthal told MintPress:
My ability to convey this reality back to the U.S. public was apparently such a threat to an unusually vocal echo chamber of regime-change fanatics that I was branded a Nazi (by Molly Crabapple), a drug addict (by a CNN correspondent), and told that I should have my life ruined (by a reactionary suburban doofus-turned-professional white Salafi ally). Their attacks were part and parcel of the Western campaign to isolate Syrians from the rest of the world, and all because their government held off a multi-billion dollar proxy war that would have transformed their country into an even more harrowing version of Libya if it had succeeded.”
Lamentably, VICE News is not the only hip, left-leaning news outlet decidedly on the side of regime change in Syria. Mariam Elba, a fact checker at The Intercept, an outlet owned by a billionaire oligarch with prior ties to human trafficking, scoffed at Blumenthal and Khalek’s trip. “Neither of them speak Arabic, yet they claim to be ‘talking’ to many Syrians there.”
This is yet another false allegation, as Khalek does speak Arabic.
Breaking the media blockade
For Blumenthal, Khalek and Parampil, all of this — as well as the lawsuits and deplatforming campaigns — is a distraction from doing real, independent investigative journalism. In Syria, where Western reporters have flocked to Islamist-held regions, the story that has not been told, in their view, is that of the average Syrian. According to Parampil:
This group of Syrians represents the vast majority of the country, despite the fact that we never hear from them in corporate media. It is my job, as a U.S. journalist with the privilege of working independently, to visit countries and speak to people impacted by the policies of Washington, particularly those who are excluded from the mainstream narrative. Unless we hear from these people, the U.S. public will be more willing to support military and economic war against the Syrian people. That is why CNN and other outlets act as though they’re invisible. The media has been weaponized against the Syrian people.”
Khalek expanded upon the situation many Syrians currently face, arguing that people are much safer now that the fighting has mostly ended and the government came out with a victory:
Except for Idlib, the bombs and mortars have stopped falling, allowing people to return to some sense of normalcy. But things aren’t normal, because the U.S. is economically suffocating the country with crippling sanctions that have devalued the Syrian currency and made it impossible for people to rebuild or plan for a decent future. Everyone wants to leave Syria because of the economic strangulation. The war on Syria continues. In place of funding proxy death squads, the U.S. has launched a campaign of economic terrorism against the country.”
Asked what lessons she took away from her trip to the country, Parampil said:
I was most shocked to see how close foreign-backed extremist militants came to taking control of the Syrian capital. They were meters away from capturing the old city, the ancient heart of Damascus. When I rode into Damascus for the first time and saw the large Syrian flag still waving above the city, I was reminded that many of my colleagues in U.S. media were supporting a war that would have seen that banner replaced with one belonging to ISIS or Al-Qaeda.
The fact they failed is something all of humanity should celebrate. I spoke with people who described the hell they were forced to live in under the rule of foreign-backed militants. They were happy to be liberated by the Syrian military. They have every right to be heard in U.S. media, which is why I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to travel to Syria and meet them at the invitation of the country’s working people.”
Feature photo | From left to right, Rania Khalek, Max Blumenthal and Anya Prampil pose for a photo in Damascus, Syria. Photo | Rania Khalek/Facebook
Alexander Rubinstein is a staff writer for MintPress News based in Washington, DC. He reports on police, prisons and protests in the United States and the United States’ policing of the world. He previously reported for RT and Sputnik News.