Her famous post 'My father, the hero' smelled fishy. Why would security officers storm her house and leave after an argument with her father? Don't they have other urgent things to do? And her Syrian father's relaxed attitude about his daughter's sexual orientation seemed disingenous to me. She wrote that for her father it was better to have a lesbian daughter than a promiscuous daughter! There was an obvious western prejudice in this statement about Arab and Muslim men's conceptions of sex. Then came the hiding period. It was said that Gay Girl went into hiding in Damascus fearing for her life. But there was laid before our eyes the first major dissonance in her narrative: how can she hide when supposedly the Mukahbarat (Syrian security forces) have spotted and visited her house and knew her well connected parents? This didn't however bother western journalists and especially The Guardian who, through their correspondant in Damascus, Katherine Marsh, a pseudonym, were covering every move by Gay Girl. The reader can see the role of The Guardian in promoting Gay Girl in this very useful Timeline.
Tom MacMaster, Katherine Marsh, the Gay Girl hoax, and The Guardian
The Guardian journalist in Damascus, Katherine Marsh, a pseudonym and no longer writing for The Guardian from Damascus, describes Gay Girl as an 'unlikely heroine of the Syrian revolt' without ever having a shred of evidence about her existence. Ethan Zuckerman writes on his blog, and I agree with him:
Both citizen and broadcast media got Amina’s story wrong. The Guardian, in particular, has much to answer for: the May 6th story by “Katherine Marsh” lionizing Amina doesn’t mention the reporter never met Amina in person. Given the use of a pseudonym to protect the reporter and a Damascus byline, it’s hard to read the story as anything but a verification of Amina’s identity, implying the reporter met with her subject. As of this morning, the Guardian has run a long story on MacMaster’s identity, but hasn’t amended, corrected or retracted the May 6th story. Today’s story includes an explanation of the initial interview, which I think should have accompanied the original piece: “Katherine Marsh, the pseudonym of a journalist who until recently was reporting for the Guardian from Syria, interviewed Amina by email in May after being put in touch with her by a trusted Syrian contact who also believed the blogger to be real. Marsh said that many steps had been taken to try to verify Amina’s identity, including repeated requests to meet, at some personal risk to the journalist, and talk on Skype.”
We know that until the last minute The Guardian was publicizing the story while doubting the doubters. This is an excerpt from an article by Esther Addley posted on June 9th:
Is A Gay Girl in Damascus a cynical hoax? Days after the mysterious post by Rania O Ismail, concrete evidence that it is all a fiction remains absent. Even the fake photographs and apparently false names are not, in themselves, proof that the story of a lesbian activist in a Syrian jail is a fiction.More than 10,000 people are thought to have been picked up by Syrian secret police since the uprising began, and if Araf is not being mistreated in custody, as repeated commentators have pointed out, there are plenty like her who are. It is common, similarly, for activists to use false names to obscure their identities.The same Esther Addley conducts through skype a non-interview with Tom, after he had published his non-apology on the Gay Girl blog, and describes him as 'contrite'.
Does the following 'apology' rehashing old orientalist cliches, seem 'contrite' to you?
"Indeed, I enjoyed 'puppeting' this woman in my head," MacMaster said in an "Apology to Readers" .
"I noticed that when I, a person with a distinctly Anglo name, made comments on the Middle East, the facts I might present were ignored and I found myself accused of hating America, Jews, etc. I wondered idly whether the same ideas presented by someone with a distinctly Arab and female identity would have the same reaction"
"While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground".
Then, on June 15th, in The Guardian books section, Robert McCrum writes under the title 'Lessons learned from a gay girl in Damascus':
On the plus side, MacMaster's stunt has inadvertently shone a bright light on a murky and shameful aspect of Syrian society. It has also reminded the world of how the Syrian dictatorship has contrived to control the country's press. Crudely, human rights in Syria are now on the international agenda in a way that was not the case before MacMaster/Arraf started blogging.
I seriously object to Mr. McCrum's suggestion that the "gay girl" affair was somehow justified because writing an overt fiction would not have been nearly as effective. If there is truly a situation of human rights abuse, that an authentic "gay girl," surely, with a bit of honest journalism, could have been found. Unfortunately, in this situation, fictions are not necessary. But a bit of responsible research is.Facts, research and honest journalism are all missing in The Guardian coverage of this story. But The Guardian coverage of the Syrian revolution 2011 can be seen through the same lens. The zealous defense The Guardian is displaying in its coverage of the MacMaster hoax has probably to do with their own credibility. The Guardian has been covering Syria with two correspodants in Damascus reporting under a pseudonym. The first reporter, Katherine Marsh, was delivering quasi daily reports from Damascus between March 22 and may 9th when she mysteriously stopped reporting and was replaced by a journalist with another pseudonym, Nidaa Hassan.
Articles published by Marsh in The Guardian between April 25th and April 30th are indexed on The Guardian website, but not on her Journalisted page. Reasons for the absence of the articles on her journalisted page are numerous but only one can possibly explain their absence: her artciles must have been indexed through 'a registration required area' so only one person could register the articles, any other person entering the articles for whomever is responsible for entering them will reveal their connections through IPs and registration identification.
Katherine Marsh's most blogged about article was posted on April 12th and it tells the story of the 9 Syrian soldiers allegedly shot by the security in Banias for not shooting at protesters, a story that was immediately revealed to be false. None of other Marsh's articles makes it into the headlines and her reporting could have been done by any person outside Syria and Damascus.On May 6th, Katherine Marsh publishes the article that makes Gay Girl widely known and makes Marsh hugely read and cited again. The article is tweeted directly from The Guardian website 254 times and has more than a thousand direct links to facebook, that's less than the false report on the shooting of soldiers in Banias which had 812 tweets and 4457 FB direct links, but a huge increase compared to all other articles which have received very poor social media links.
Around May 5th Gay Girl goes underground for fear of being arrested. On May 9th, katherine Marsh stops reporting from Damascus and Nidaa Hassan starts reporting on May 12th. On June 6th, Rania O. Ismail writes on Gay Girl's blog that Gay Girl has been abducted by men from the Syrian security. Nidaa Hassan reports for The Guardian about the kindnapping in two articles posted on the same day (here and here). Although the two stories are less tweeted than the two major breakthrough stories of katherine Marsh (the syrian soldiers who were shot at and the Gay Girl blog) they nonetheless regain the thousand mark in facebook links.
I have for a while given some thought as to the identity of katherine Marsh and my curiosity about her identity was prompted by her very bad journalism skills and the absence of some of her articles on the journalisted page. I have previously wrote that Marsh could have been Dorothy Parvaz, after all, The Guardian and Al-Jazeera have both distinguished themselves in their biased and false reporting on Syria. I am now inclined to conclude that Tom MacMaster could have been behind Katherine Marsh. Other than the coincidental evidence presented above, I noted the following: In his first ever interview given to a Turkish journalist from Istanbul, Tom MacMaster, the man behind Gay Girl, said that he knew that things were going out of control when The Guardian contacted him:
To my knowledge, and until the last minute, The Guardian was not interested in knowing the truth about Gay Girl. But after the news broke out about Gay Girl's abduction, news and governmental organisations as well as bloggers (Liz Henry--Ben and Ali--Andrew Carvin) started to search Amina's identity, there was a life on the line and the only people who could have answered for this, because of their supposed commitment to journalistic standards requiring them to check on the identity of the people they write about, were the people at The Guardian, and chiefly Katherine Marsh who interviewed Gay Girl. But when the time for truth came The Guardian has nothing substantial to give to activists and journalists eager to save Amina. This is when they might have contacted Tom MacMaster to try to know something from him. Tom's admission that things started to go out of control when he was contacted by The Guardian must refer in this case not to official contacts by The Guardian which had only taken place after the news about the hoax broke out in the open on June 13th, but to contacts that must have taken place before the hoax was exposed.I asked him when was the first time he said that things are going out of control, he responded as “when the Guardian contacted me”
The Guardian knew Tom MacMaster. Was he their contact to Amina? And if yes: Is Tom and Katherine Marsh and Gay Girl the same person? To this day, The Guardian is trying to cover these questions instead of trying to answer them.
Tom MacMaster, Britta Froelicher, The Gay Girl Hoax and Academia
Tom is married to Britta Froelicher, and she, not him, is the one who is studying Syria. We know that Tom loves fiction and writing but what we don't know is what is he studying. I searched all articles and not one mentions his area of studies. On the contrary we know about his wife's area of studies.
Britta Froelicher is doing her master degree at the Center for Syrian Studies at St Andrews on Syria's textile economy. On June 12th, as the the hoax was unraveling, all fingers were pointed at her. When a Turkish journalist doesthe first ever interview with Tom in Istanbul after his 'apology' on Gay Girl's blog, Froelicher is around and 'nervous'. She has reasons to be nervous, Froelicher was trying to establish herself as a scholar on Syria and an activist on the peace process between Syria and Israel. In 2008,she organised and chaired a conference attended by the Syrian ambassador to the US Imad Mustapha about peace prospects between Syria and Israel and her account of the conference was guest posted on Syria Comment, a widely read blog about Syria.
Syria Comment blog owner, Joshua Landis, is associate professor at Oklahoma University and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the same university. According to his OU page, Joshua Landis is a frequent radio and TV contributor, his blog is "widely read Dr. Landis is also an advisory member of the pro-Syrian Revolution 2011, anti-Assad, Washington based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, along with professor Raymond Hennebusch and Steve Heydemann who are also respectively director and members of the Center for Syrian Studies based at St Andrews in Scotland. The university and the center were in the news in April as the center was accused for having accepted funds from the Syrian regime but it was concluded on May 5th, days after the investigation was launched, that there was no evidence of bias from the center toward the Syrian regime.
This is where Tom MacMaster and his wife Britta Froelicher were based as students this academic year. Froelicher was, until very recently (until the hoax was revealed), affiliated with the center as a Ph.D student, but she was given a leave of absence for the next academic year by the university.
Until the hoax was revealed, Froelicher name appeared on the main page of the center along Landis, Hennebusch, and Heydemann (thanks to an anonymous who provided me with the cashed link to the page on my blog because I was having difficulty following the web pages for the center as they were and are still going a total reshuffle). Later, it has been taken out from the main page and, until June 15th, was relegated to a special category of 'associate fellows' as evidenced by a commentator (number 28) on a blog that discussed the hoax. However, while trying to link again to this special category page today, I got an error message. The page is still however on the web in a cashed link (again thanks anonymous who is still providing me with these links).
Wat is interesting when comparing the CSS web pages was that they moved Froelicher's name form the first page that lists senior academics and associate fellows to the special page category but the people who are of the same category on the special page were still on the main page, except her. I think I caught the process as they were clearing some pages and restructuring the information on the website, and my guess is that Froelicher's name will not be seen anywhere there in the near future.
We would think that Academics would be more honest than journalists in disclosing their links to this story and its characters, in a way or another, as there is a potential conflict of interest that could affect their academic integrity and credibility. As an academic myself, I find for example Landis's treatment of the story on his blog totally unacceptable especially since some readers of his blog have asked him to disclose and explain some of his links to various interest groups from the Syrian opposition to government agencies...to Froelicher. He never did.
Landis was the first to mention Gay Girl's blog on April 28th, before everybody else:
A new blogger in Damascus who writes like a dream and gives us a wonderful new voice and perspective on life in Syria. Read Amina about her confrontation with two young Alawite intelligence agents – a wonderful account of the successful deployment of “the Damsacus gambit” on Syria’s complicated chessboard of religion, class, gender, patriarchy, and national one-upmanship. Delectable and scary. Thank God it has a happy ending.After the hoax was revealed, Landis dismissed the story as a 'juicy distraction', without any other explanation.
The real story is not the fake Gay Girl in Damascus – a juicy distraction that has dominated the airwaves for the last two days – but the way so many journalists cannot check their stories before deadlines because they are not permitted into Syria and don’t understand Arabic*.
Yes, but Landis knows Syria, understands Arabic, knows Froelicher and MacMaster, but was never interested in checking the story while wholeheartedly embracing it. And Landis, the academic, had more real links to the couple than The Guardian. But as he never felt the need to disclose his US government consultancy work, Syrian Opposition advisory role, as well as Syrian regime links through the center for Syrian Studies, neither to his readers on his blog, nor to persons he advises and persons from the media who interview him, he still doesn't feel the need to give any explanation about his links to Britta Froelicher and Tom MacMaster.
Is it too much to ask for the truth from those who pretend to inform and enlighten us?
* A reader commenting on this post rightly pointed out to the fact that Tom MacMaster was writing in English and not in Arabic on Gay Girl blog.