Reporters Without Borders deplores the irresponsibility of a US student who passed himself off online as Syrian woman blogger based in Damascus. His actions must not be allowed to undermine the credibility of the real Syrian bloggers and activists who, despite President Bashar Al-Assad’s brutal crackdown, are doing everything possible to keep informing their fellow citizens and the rest of the world.
In a 12 June post, Tom MacMaster, an American student based in Scotland, admitted to having been the sole author of “A Gay Girl in Damascus,” a blog in which he pretended to be Amina Abdallah, a young woman with US and Syrian dual nationality.
“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,” MacMaster argued. “I do not believe that I have harmed anyone -- I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.”
Launched last February and written solely in English, the blog acquired a following. Then a person identifying herself as a cousin of Amina posted an entry on 6 June saying Amina had been kidnapped and that her parents were very worried. The news circulated widely online and many activists, journalists and netizens began trying to track down information about her abduction, often endangering their own safety to do so. A support page launched on Facebook gained 15,000 members. Reporters Without Borders also took up the call for her release.
Doubts about the identity of the blog’s author began to be voiced when a young woman reported that the photo of Amina displayed on the blog had been lifted from her private Facebook account. Investigators at the Electronic Intifada website traced everything back to MacMaster, who initially denied being the blog’s author. After several days of silence and growing controversy, he finally posted his admission two days ago.
The Amina affair is now being used by the Syrian regime and its supporters in an attempt to undermine the credibility of the information being posted online by government opponents about the protest movement in Syria and the regime’s violent crackdown.
But anonymity helps to ensure safety in Syria and it does in many other countries. In Vietnam, Burma and Iran, bloggers use a false identity to express their views on the Internet because they know that online transparency can be very dangerous. A total of 125 netizens are currently in prison worldwide because of the news or views they posted online.
Media all over the world had been quoting from “A Gay Girl in Damascus” ever since the blog’s launch last February. The case is a perfect illustration of the challenges journalists face in verifying information provided by bloggers and social media.
But these same bloggers and netizens are often the only source of news and information when the media are prevented from doing their work. Good examples of this have been Astrubal of the blog Nawaat and Lina Ben Mhenni (A Tunisian Girl) during the Tunisian uprising.