Journalists in the firing line
Discrediting journalists who buck the dominant narratives of corporate media is becoming a cottage industry. Last week, it was my turn.
The Industry of Fakes: no longer can words, pictures, video, or audio be trusted, thanks to the deceptive capabilities of new technologies. We made this fake picture in one hour flat.
Last week, a cache of around 17,000 documents allegedly hacked from Iranian media outlet Press TV, began making their rounds on social media. Among them are documents which bear my name, passport photo, and signature.
For the past six days, I have been subject to ceaseless attacks on Twitter by supposed “Iranian” accounts accusing me of being a paid propagandist of the Iranian government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), based on a scurrilous piecing together of fragments of information to create a false perception of my journalism.
In the main, these social media “warriors for women’s rights” leach onto my posts and followers, and spew derogatory slurs related to my gender. “Whore,” and more colorful versions of that word, seem to be their favorite refrain, but many threaten my life and safety too. In Persian, this manner of language feels even more heavy, shameful, and menacing.
First, let me categorically deny that I am paid by Press TV or any other Iranian institution to disseminate propaganda about anything. Since 2009, when I returned to journalism after a spell in the telecommunications industry, I have made clear my views about Iran, Israel, West Asia, and US foreign policy in countless articles, many of which can be found on my archive here.
Nothing has changed about my views during the 13 intervening years, except that they have been further honed and informed. The Syrian war did that to me. The amount of deceit, subterfuge, and foreign manipulation I witnessed in that conflict removed any lingering self-duping about western intentions and capabilities I may have harbored from being educated in the United Kingdom and the United States.
If my views coincide with those of Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, or Ali Khamenei, then that’s all they are: common personal visions forged from years of witnessing western duplicity that has run the world into the ground – chaos erupting everywhere. There are plenty of other Europeans today who are fed up with the US-instigated-and-fueled standoffs with Russia and China. Many understand the promise of ‘Eurasia’ and wish to disconnect from the shackles of ‘Atlanticism.’
And they are not paid by the Russians, Iranians, or Chinese either.
The Industry of Fake Stuff
From Artificial Intelligence (AI) to Deep Fakes, we are collectively familiar with the fascinating technology breakouts of the 21st century, but we neither view them as particularly negative or destructive technologies, nor do we actually consider their potential impact on our real lives.
From Edward Snowden we learned that governments are able to infiltrate our applications, emails, cameras and microphones. They can track us everywhere, know our locations, and watch our every financial transaction. You could be watching Netflix on your laptop, while a National Security Agency (NSA) operative is watching you eat your dinner.
I mention these things – barely the tip of the iceberg – to remind us that a picture is no longer worth a thousand words, something I discovered early on in the Syrian conflict. Images don’t even need to be fake, they merely have to be presented in a way that bypasses your natural bullshit radar.
Here are some of the allegedly hacked documents posted on me this past week:
This is my passport and what looks to be my signature. A cursory glance tells me that these are images of documents signed at a “Hawala,” the Arabic word for “the transaction of money,” also commonly used to describe those who – legally – transact funds outside the normal banking system.
Since late 2019, Lebanon’s financial institutions collectively froze the accounts of all depositors to avoid a run on the banks as the country faced economic collapse. Furthermore, even simple wire transfers through banks with “fresh cash” has become an onerous task – some of these institutions unilaterally take weeks or months to release your funds.
Those living in Lebanon have therefore taken en masse to receiving funds from their external bank accounts and family members via this Hawala system. As an aside, most countries under US sanctions or financial pressures establish similar parallel means of transacting.
If I signed either Document A or B above, I would not have a copy in my records – it would be retained for the records of the money exchanger.
I’m neither disputing nor confirming whether either of these stand-alone documents are genuine, because I cannot trace them. I do, however, like other locals, transact through a Hawala because it is infinitely easier, and have done so very frequently in recent years since Lebanon’s banking sector collapsed.
I do not know how or why these documents have appeared in the alleged Press TV hacking. I have sought legal counsel on this matter, so I cannot speculate much.
Despite this, I will point out two things that caught my attention while searching through the cached documents. Of the thousands of entries dated on October 14, 2022 – presumably, a date related to the hacking operation – only two dozen are dated on October 18, including these two scans depicting my transactions above. Could they have been inserted later into the pile of documents?
Second, the “Hawala” named in Document 2 – signed in 2021 – is reportedly a Syrian business, located in Syria, which I have not visited since 2019. The Al Fadel exchange, per this article I discovered in an online search, is set up specifically to pay for Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah’s expenses inside Syria. Is this an attempt to link me to all that this implies? Am I now a Hezbollah-Assad-IRI-Putin-China agent? Dear God.
Wait, there’s more
I unearthed another few documents in the cache with my name on them – they are presented below. None have any dates or logos on them – though those could easily be inserted by anyone with a PC. My name is spelt incorrectly as well. Take a look:
Here is the funny part. Together, these three documents claim that I have written a total of 121 “research/analytical articles,” 60 “news stories,” and “2 interviews” for Press TV.
In the last two years, I have written a grand total of four articles and published three interviews with an American, a Palestinian, and a Lebanese national. Google me. I am not a prolific writer. Never have been, and have slowed down considerably since I stopped covering the Syrian war and turned to editing as my primary work.
Ironically, in the past 13 years since I began writing – for dozens of media outlets along the way – I have never written a single article for Press TV.
The clincher really is this solitary, short statement Press TV made in response to the hacked documents:
“In a malicious act that is a clear violation of the personal rights of Press TV employees and people related to it such as media experts and experts, a hacking group attempted to hack some user accounts in the email service of this network and published the personal documents of people, the salary list and salary and other normal administrative documents, and this network has the absolute right to put the necessary follow-ups through legal institutions on its agenda.
It should be mentioned that these people, among the types of administrative documents they obtained, made fake documents such as creating invoices and financial receipts, in order to create a poisonous atmosphere against the mission of this network and its employees, whose intention is nothing but enlightenment and professional activity. They do not have journalism, and hereby Press TV rejects the authenticity of such documents or alleged documents that may be published in the future.” (emphasis mine)
Discrediting the counter-narrative
The widespread social media campaign that followed the alleged Press TV hack was launched on Twitter on 20 October, with this tweet:
Notice the photo of myself and former Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif juxtaposed with the documents. It’s a perception-management exercise. I am with an Iranian official, therefore everything else that follows must be true.
Except that it was I who first tweeted that photo of myself with FM Zarif back in 2015, when four journalists – a Brazilian, Lebanese, American and I – scored the first joint media interview with him during the final stretch of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiations in Vienna that July.
This was the only time I ever met Dr. Zarif in person. The anti-Iran Twitter army simply cut out the tweet and kept the photo – as though it was found as part of the hacked document cache.
This particular twitter account has been hounding me for years because of my worldview. Most of these allegedly “Iranian” social media accounts have zero tolerance for other narratives, in direct contradiction to the “freedoms” they espouse. Here is Taghvaee, three years ago, insinuating all kinds of things about me – some which could lead to my personal harm, including arrest and incarceration.
I have blocked him since. As shown in his twitter profile, he writes for NATO member-state defense publications and for Israeli media. Taghvaee tends to tweet military information that is not readily available, so one suspects a possible intelligence connection. And his boasts about obtaining intel on me easily also lead to that conclusion.
According to Marc Owen Jones, an investigative journalist who regularly tracks and reports on social media influence campaigns – often run or funded by governments – Schrader was pivotal in mass social media attacks against the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC), a Washington group that advocates for more realism in US-Iran relations.
In a 16 October tweet, Jones revealed the following:
“Since the Mahsa Amini protests, the @NIACouncil have received renewed attacks on Twitter (over a hundred thousands tweets/RTs/mentions). The most influential in this attack appears to be Jerusalem Post journalist & digital marketing (on political campaigns) expert Emily Schrader.”
NIAC and my views on Iran, though they may coincide in a few places, couldn’t be more different. Another target of mass social media attacks this month is Iranian-American journalist Negar Mortazavi, who writes for and appears on mainstream western media outlets as a more neutral critic of the Iranian government. For this, she has been subjected to harassment and death threats, and the anti-Iran cyber armies relentlessly pound on her in all forums.
There are countless others – ironically, mainly females – including New York Times reporter Farnaz Fassihi. In 2021, UNESCO published a report on the global spike in online violence against women journalists: you can read it here.
The purpose of online violence against female journalists is to “belittle, humiliate, and shame; induce fear, silence, and retreat; discredit them professionally, undermining accountability journalism and trust in facts; and chill their active participation (along with that of their sources, colleagues and audiences) in public debate.”
Most of us are independent journalists and analysts, each bringing our own nuance and perspective to our coverage of Iran and the wider region. We can respect each other’s opinions, although they differ. And that is how it should be. But the cyber armies won’t have it. We must be discredited at all costs.
It is my view that the reason for all these misinformation attacks and fakeries taking place now is because Neocons and Israelis are in utter panic about Iran surviving the global power standoff between the east and west. They sunk the JCPOA deal – twice – and will not tolerate the slightest narrative obstacle as they seek to spark utter upheaval in Iran.
This past summer, I received a Google alert – my first ever – that government-backed hackers were trying to access my password.
Journalism has become dangerous. Our Arabic editor Radwan Mortada was sentenced in an irregular Lebanese military court hearing to one year and one month in prison for “the offense of insulting the military establishment.” One of our Turkish contributors, a former editor at Cum Hurriyet and a radio interview show personality, Ceyda Karan, has been eluding imprisonment for her journalism.
Another frequent correspondent, Hedwig Kuijpers, a Belgian national who often reports on contentious Kurdish issues in Iraq, Iran and Syria, has been missing for over two months, and we are deeply worried about her safety.
There are so many of these cases. Reporters are being killed in the field in greater numbers than ever before, and the world’s most famous journalist, Julian Assange, is incarcerated in a UK maximum security prison for reporting on the secret activities of western governments and their war crimes. US officials have even publicly encouraged his assassination.
I do not work for any foreign government or intelligence agency. I am one of the few journalists I know who has never even been approached by one.
Visiting Iran at the start of the pandemic’s outbreak three years ago, I was ordered to attend a security interview upon my arrival at the airport. Yes, in Iran. This had never happened to me before in any of my travels, anywhere. Upon returning to Lebanon, I worriedly approached a trusted senior security official, and asked him why he thought I had been subjected to this inquisition. His response:
“To be honest, I’ve known you for seven years now, and you travel to places like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran for work – I personally don’t understand why this hasn’t happened before. If I was running Amn al-Aam (Lebanon’s General Security agency), I would have dragged you in for an interview myself.”
That is what journalists have to put up with these days. I have great passion and conviction for my work. Threats tend to make me double-down, as many saw during my Syria coverage over nine long years. If you offered me 10 million dollars to write an article that contradicted my beliefs, I wouldn’t do it. Though on second thought, I might take it, then “out” you in a well-deserved public shaming.
This publication does not accept funds on the basis of ownership or influence. What that means is that you can write us a big fat check, but you will own zero shares in the enterprise, and we can mutually part ways at any time. It is part of our mission to create better, more responsible media.
If Press TV or Russia Today or Telesur – media outlets stigmatized by their western counterparts – offered to become one of our donors with no strings attached, I would readily accept, and continue writing as we do, covering West Asia and Eurasia in more interesting dimensions than appears in corporate media anywhere. In fact, I may do just that.