On Tuesday, Al-Watan, a Saudi newspaper, quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov saying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had agreed to step down after months of trying to quash the Syrian uprising. It's not unusual for public figures to take back inflammatory statements after they make them. But in this case, the Russian foreign ministry is denying that the interview happened at all.
According to Al-Arabiya, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a public statement on Tuesday:
"We would like to point out that this report does not correspond with reality, and the Russian special envoy gave no such interview."
Zakharova also claimed that there was a "propaganda war" being waged over Syria and accused media outlets of disseminating "blatant disinformation."
In an attempt to defend its credibility, Al-Watan published a recording of the alleged interview on its website. The speaker, who identifies himself as Bogdanov, also claims (in remarkably fluent Arabic) that Assad's brother, Maher al-Assad, had lost his legs in the July bombing of a key government headquarters in Damascus and was "fighting for his life." According to the AFP, the voice on the recording "sounded different from the voice of Bogdanov in videos available online."
The Al-Watan story was picked up by quite a few news outlets, most of which have since amended their reports after the Russian statement. A few Israeli and Arab news outlets continue to post their original stories on the incident.
On another front of the Syrian misinformation war, the Reuters blogging platform was hacked yet again on Wednesday. This time, the hackers falsely posted a report stating that Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, had died.
As Foreign Policy posted earlier this month, hackers supporting the Syrian opposition had previously hijacked one of the Reuters blogs on August 3, posting false reports of rebel gains in Syria. In a separate incident, pro-regime hackers fought back on August 5 by commandeering a Reuters Twitter account, which they used to tweet about a rebel collapse in Aleppo and accuse the White House of providing arms to al-Qaeda militants in Syria.
All this lends at least some credibility to the Russian claim of a propaganda battle over the Syrian uprising. If there is a war of disinformation, it would seem that the worst casualties are the media organizations whose reputations have been damaged, sometimes by cyberattacks, sometimes by failure to thoroughly verify information.
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A cleric has issued a fatwa calling for the death of the editor of Morocco's Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribia daily newspaper, Moktar el-Ghzioui, after he went on television proclaiming his opposition to article 490 of the Moroccan penal code, which criminalizes premarital sex. The BBC reported last Thursday that Ghzioui is in fear for his life following his controversial public statements in defense of sex before marriage, which is still taboo in many countries and religions.
A Moroccan imam told the BBC that if the code prohibiting premarital sex was removed, "we will become wild savages. Our society will become a disaster."
Last year, also in Morocco, a judge ordered a 16-year-old girl named Amina Filali to marry the man who raped her. She committed suicide in March, prompting widespread outrage and condemnation of article 475, which allows a rapist to marry his victim in order to escape jail.
Morocco isn't the only country where the prohibition on premarital sex is sometimes violently enforced. Islamists linked to al Qaeda in Mali stoned a couple to death in July for engaging in sex before marriage. The couple reportedly had been living together for some time and had children together.
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Lebanese political figures have become notorious for taking their rather unseemly catfights to Twitter and Facebook, leading some to wonder whether tweeting their spats is the only thing keeping these pillars of the Lebanese community from literally being at each other's throats. Former Prime Minister and leader of the March 14 coalition, Saad Hariri, is by far the most egregious offender, using Twitter as a platform for his many grievances against the ruling Hezbollah-backed March 8 bloc. Hariri waxes philosophical in this July tweet:
"I hope the Holy month will bring all closer to the values of brotherhood and tolerance. An occasion for some to go back to their conscience."
Hariri, who used to tweet so frequently that the AFP actually wrote a story about it last year, has been noticeably quiet lately following some cringe-worthy virtual gaffes. In January, he cheerfully tweeted "Good morning" to the Israeli minister of defense, prompting widespread outrage, since Lebanon is still technically at war with Israel. As if that weren't bad enough, Hariri displayed some markedly undignified behavior when let himself be baited by one of his followers in May. A few samples:
Another noteworthy virtual brawl took place in April, when the head of the Free Patriotic movement, Michel Aoun, held a question-and-answer session on his Facebook page. While answering one of the questions, Aoun insulted Lebanese President, Michel Sleiman, by saying that the leader of Lebanon should command a parliamentary bloc instead of "begging at the door of some ministers." Sleiman responded by tweeting that "At least a consensual president does not beg for the presidency. On the contrary, everyone asks him to accept the post of president."
According to Think Media Labs, a Lebanese social media marketing agency, July was quite an active month for the many Lebanese politicians who frequent Twitter. Minister of Energy Gebran Bassil was the most prolific tweeter, with 226 tweets, while member of the pro-Western March 14 alliance Antoine Haddad was the most responsive to his followers.
Perhaps Twitter, by providing Lebanese politicians with a platform to get snarky, is the only thing standing in the way of another civil war. Who needs to start shooting when you can run your mouth instead?
Lebanese security forces arrested the former information minister of Lebanon and close ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on Thursday. Michel Samaha, who served as minister of information under the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, was detained on what appears to be suspicion of being involved in a plot to detonate a number of explosives near the Lebanese-Syrian border.
Lebanon's Daily Star reported that Samaha was awakened in the middle of the night by police from the Internal Security Forces branch of information, who proceeded to raid his house and remove several items, including his wife's car. This prompted a flurry of speculation by local media outlets that he had been involved in an assassination plot against a member of parliament, while other news organizations claimed that Samaha had been arrested for collaborating with Israel. However, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who is a member of the Hezbollah-backed March 8 alliance, made a statement denying that Samaha's arrest was linked to espionage.
According to the Daily Star, 20 "highly effective" remote bombs were found in several areas of Northern Lebanon. They were diffused and brought to Beirut by explosive experts.
The Guardian reported that in 2007, Samaha was put on a White House list of Lebanese and Syrian figures working to undermine the pro-Western March 14-dominated government that was ruling at the time.
The war in Syria has been bleeding into northern Lebanon in recent months, with a number of skirmishes taking place between Syrian and Lebanese security forces as well as cross-border shelling. The Syrian government has accused towns in the north of Lebanon of harboring rebels..
However, the March 8 coalition of the Lebanese government has remained a staunch supporter of Assad's embattled regime. In contrast, the March 14 party has been extremely vocal in its espousal of the Syrian opposition's cause.
Samaha's arrest highlights the deep division that permeates the Lebanese government, especially where Syria is concerned.
A fight between hardline Salafists at a Tunisian mosque on Tuesday was hardly big news. A brief story by AFP on the incident was buried by reports from Aleppo and coverage of the attack in Sinai. However, the clash between rival Islamists serves as a reflection of the current state of affairs in the country that sparked the Arab Spring.
Apparently, followers of a Salafist scholar angered a group of "jihadists" by beginning iftar, the meal that breaks Ramadan fasting, shortly before the call to prayer. The argument quickly degenerated into a knife fight, and tear gas was even used at one point.
This ugly little brawl would be unremarkable, except that radical Salafists are reportedly becoming quite bold in Tunisia these days. On Sunday, Abdelfattah Mourou, a member of Tunisia's more moderate ruling Ennahada party, was violently attacked during a conference on tolerance and Islam by another Salafist.
In June, Salafists actually rioted over an art exhibition that spelled out the name of God in insects, attacking police stations and the offices of secular parties with rocks and homemade bombs. Reuters reported in May that alcohol venders in the town of Sidi Bouzid, where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and the Arab Spring in motion, had repeatedly been attacked by radical Islamists.
Manouba University, a Tunisian college, was also the focus of much controversy in July over a rule forbidding female students to wear a face veil during exams.
Although it's frequently at odds with the ultraconservative Salafists, even the supposedly moderate Ennahada party is considering a bill that would criminalize blasphemy. It defines this as "insults, profanity, derision and representation of Allah and Mohammed."
Reuters has been scrambling to tighten its Internet security since Friday, when one of its blogs started spontaneously featuring "inaccurate and unauthorized" reports of rebel forces gaining ground in Syria. As if that weren't enough, one of its Twitter feeds was apparently targeted by pro-government hackers on Sunday. The hijacked account was hastily renamed and immediately began falsely tweeting about a rebel collapse in Aleppo, then went on to accuse the White House of arming al Qaeda militants in Syria in an effort to undermine the regime.
Reuters played down the impact of the cyberattacks in an article published on Tuesday:
"While some of the false blog posts were at least briefly shared via social media by readers who believed they were honest reports from Aleppo, it is far from clear whether anyone in the embattled city itself ever saw them."
Cyberwarfare has been utilized by both sides of the Syrian conflict since its early days. Reuters mentions another incident that took place on Monday, when a fake Twitter account claiming to belong to a senior Russian official sensationally tweeted that President Bashar al-Assad was dead. An Italian schoolteacher later claimed to be the perpetrator of the hoax. Reuters even admits, rather sheepishly, that it was caught up in the "flurry of speculation and telephone calls" prompted by his tweets.
Reuters is not the first news outlet targeted by cyberattacks since the beginning of this conflict, either. Al Jazeera suffered a similar embarrassment in July, when one of its Twitter accounts was infiltrated by the pro-Assad hacker group, Syrian Electronic Army. That Twitter feed accused the Qatari television station of fabricating civilian casualties in Syria.
In March, an opposition group called Supreme Council of the Revolution hacked into Assad's private email account, releasing correspondence that allegedly took place between Assad and his wife Asma.
The regime in turn reportedly used social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to track members of the opposition, sending them tainted links containing spyware and creating fake accounts in an attempt to ferret out their identities.
Although it's not clear how much impact these cyberattacks have had on either side, they are an interesting manifestation of the long and bloody conflict taking place on the ground.
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