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Making An Example Out Of Independent Journalists Who Cover Syria

On this week’s “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast, journalist Rania Khalek talks a bit about what she has learned while reporting in Syria. Khalek also addresses the smear attacks on her reputation, which led to her resignation from an editorial position at Electronic Intifada. It has impacted her ability to convince media outlets to publish her work while she is in Lebanon to cover stories in Syria and other nearby countries.

Khalek became an easy target because she does not view the Syrian war as a conflict between good and bad forces. She treats the war with a level of nuance and complexity that deeply upsets Syrian opposition groups, who want the world to romanticize them even as they, too, commit war crimes. When she was listed on the program of a conference, where pro-government perspectives would feature prominently, she was hit with a deluge of questions and innuendo that completely ignored the fact that she was not the only journalist going to the conference. Khalek goes into more detail during this week’s show.

In the latter half of the show, we highlight Dakota Access Pipeline resistance and the police assault on water protectors that occurred about one week ago. (Note: The show was recorded on November 25, hours before the Army Corps of Engineers issued an eviction notice to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. So that unfortunately goes unaddressed.)

Khalek and Kevin Gosztola also slam pundits who think Donald Trump is now acting “presidential,” and they address the progressive dishonesty toward Bernie Sanders just about any time he talks about the concepts of race and class and focuses on material conditions for working and middle class people
instead of identity.

The latest episode is available on iTunes. To listen to the episode (and also to download the episode), go here. A page will load with the audio file of the interview that will automatically play.

The following is a partial transcript of Rania Khalek’s remarks on the show about her reporting trip to Syria:

I went to Syria earlier this month. I went as a part of this delegation of lots and lots of journalists from literally every single media outlet you can think of that is mainstream, except for maybe The Guardian. I’m talking like the BBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post. I believe someone from the Daily Beast was there. A bunch of people from different think tanks in the U.S. and in the U.K., the Telegraph, the Sunday Times—You see where I am going with this.

I went on this delegation, and it was basically, the whole idea was Western journalists have been allowed to enter Syria I believe since 2014. Even before then, it was very difficult if you were a Western journalist to get permission from the government to enter because of the war and the government in Syria basically blames the West for the war in Syria. And so, the whole idea of this delegation is that it was for this conference organized by this British NGO called the British Syrian Society, which was co-founded I believe by the father of the first lady in Syria but is not attached to the Syrian government. They do have a pro-government view.

[This NGO] organized this conference for journalists to come and basically hear from people in Syria, particularly the government perspective. And so, this conference was not paid for or sponsored by the government. The government just approved the visas for the journalists, and then it was a way for journalists from the West to enter a country that they have not been allowed to enter.

Of course, everybody went, including me, and on the way to Damascus, Charles Lister, who is this guy who works for a Qatari-funded think tank who has been pushing for the U.S. to do a no-fly zone in Syria and is basically a mouthpiece for this Qatari-funded armed rebel group called Ahrar al-Sham, which has a really nasty agenda and has committed atrocities, found a program of the conference and he puts it online and my name appears as a speaker of this conference.

To be clear, I did not agree to be a speaker at this conference, but it was also my fault that my name was on there because I had not been really paying attention to my emails in the days leading up to this conference. I was traveling. I was in Lebanon. I didn’t have a phone yet with wifi, working data. I was getting all these documents in order so I could go to Syria. So it was my bad. I wasn’t checking my email and reading every single one and there was a bunch of emails from this NGO that organized this conference, and I didn’t pay attention. And they did. They sent us this program like a couple days ahead of the conference and I didn’t even look at it. So I didn’t see my name on the speakers list until I was on my way to this conference, and I was like, oh shit, I am supposed to speak. Like what?

I was upset. I specifically told them I don’t want to be a speaker at this conference. Obviously, I’m not an idiot. I understand the optics of that would look really bad. I know how people think and spread rumors. The point is, Charles Lister was like, Rania is speaking at a pro-government conference. Mind you, I’m on the way to Damascus. I definitely don’t have wifi. But every time we stop somewhere that I can attach to someone’s wifi I get this flood of messages from colleagues and friends asking, why are you speaking at this government conference, and Rania, what is going on. There are these people calling you a fascist. And, mind you, I cannot even defend myself because again I’m not really able to access Twitter. I don’t even know what’s going on.

By the time we get to Damascus and settle into our hotel, it’s late at night and I’m getting this flood of messages. I take a look at Twitter. I’ve got all these DMs, and I am like, what the fuck? I’m getting DMs from all these people, who are friends of mine being like what the fuck is wrong with you. Other people are being nice and ask what are you doing. Why are you speaking at this conference? No one has any idea what this conference is about. I don’t think they realize that there are mainstream journalists going to this conference. All they know from what what Charles Lister spread and what Michael Weiss and other people spread is that Rania is speaking at a conference. They’re saying it is organized by the government, which it wasn’t.

To be clear, everyone paid their own way. Everyone paid for everything on their own because the whole idea was, no, it is not funded by the Syrian government. And it wasn’t.

I just want to point out there were people upset anybody even went to this thing, and I think it’s ridiculous. First of all, people wanted to access Syria because this is one of the most talked about regions in the world. It’s one of the most dangerous conflicts in the world, and there’s no Western journalists on the ground for the most part at all. So I think it’s really important for people to take the opportunity to go there.

Also, it is important to hear the government perspective. You don’t have to agree with the government. You should hear what they’re saying and know what their argument is, especially when it is a government that the U.S. is saying we need to overthrow. That’s to say, regardless of you think of the government—and I don’t have this romanticized view of the government at all. In fact, it’s the exact opposite, and no one would even know that because I have not even been able to report on what I saw and what I experienced and the stories that I have.

I’m still working on a bunch of them, and I did fundraise to go and I do plan to publish stuff. But I’m also having trouble placing things because what happened is I was smeared so viciously and so badly and it was only me. I will also add that there were other journalists, who were accidentally placed on the speakers program as well. And there were other journalists that were on the speakers program and did, in fact, speak. Also, a couple think tank people who are very well respected [spoke]. These people were not attacked.

The reason I was viciously attacked and targeted is because I’m an easy target. I don’t have any institutional backing. I’m like an independent journalist, who works for tiny little lefty marginal outlets. Also, you lose nothing from attacking me. Attacking someone from a big outlet, who has all this backing, there might be consequences for that. Attacking someone like me, especially if you’re an established person who people listen to and consider an expert, even if they’re not—Like attacking me, you lose nothing.

If anything, you can make an example out of me. I think that was the whole point because these people, like Charles Lister, were so pissed off that journalists from mainstream U.S. outlets were attending this conference.

Basically, the attacks got so bad that people started attacking EI by extension because I was on the editorial board at EI, at Electronic Intifada. So we had to come to the conclusion that I needed to step down because my name being associated with the Electronic Intifada was getting the Electronic Intifada attacked. EI is a really important outlet. It’s one of the few independent news outlets that does real independent reporting from Palestine, from the U.S. on the issue of Palestine. So I don’t want it to go down in flames cause I’m going down in flames. We ultimately decided it was best for me to step down.

It sucks because I loved being at EI, and I can’t be there anymore because of these disgusting, vicious smear attacks. I can’t even believe it happened. I didn’t even end up attending the conference, and everybody else got to attend the conference and have access to all these high-level officials. And I said, you know what? Screw it. I’m not going to go if it’s this big of a deal. So I didn’t even bother to go to the conference, and it didn’t even matter because I still got attacked.

And my reputation, I don’t know how badly it’s been damaged, but again, I didn’t do anything wrong. The worst thing I’ll cop to is I didn’t pay attention and that’s my fault for not paying attention but I’m only human. I didn’t check my email as much as I should have, and the last thing I will add is I do have a lot of amazing stories on Syria and I am having trouble finding places to publish them because my name has been tarnished.

One editor even said to me you visited Syria with government permission. I don’t think that you’re biased but none of your reporting is going to be taken seriously. My response to that is, okay, should I enter Syria illegally? Like is that the only way my reporting will be legitimate, if I enter a country at war illegally? It’s so absurd to me.

The narrative around Syria is so ridiculous. After being there, I can see how much more ridiculous it is, and there aren’t very many journalists on the ground. It should be an asset to have an independent journalist on the ground in Syria, and despite that, it’s like specifically progressive outlets or outlets that purport to be progressive have decided it is not important to report from the ground in Syria. And I’m utterly shocked by that.

For more from Rania Khalek, listen to the full episode here

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."