Russian State TV Distorts The Intercept’s Reporting on a Syrian Chemical Attack

Russian state TV incorrectly reported that an investigation by The Intercept supports claims that a chemical attack in Syria last year was a hoax.

A screenshot from Russian state television's report on an Intercept investigation of the propaganda battle that followed a chemical attack in Syria in 2018. Photo: Russia 24

According to Russia 24, a Russian government news channel, a recent investigation by The Intercept supports a conspiracy theory promoted by Russian officials: that there was no chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma last year, and video of victims was fabricated to provoke American airstrikes. But The Intercept report featured in the Russian broadcast actually concluded the opposite: that a chemical attack did take place in Douma on the night of April 7, 2018.

As James Harkin reported for The Intercept earlier this month, the civilians whose lifeless bodies were seen in extremely graphic footage recorded by opposition activists immediately after the attack were most likely killed by chlorine gas from a canister dropped from airspace that was under the exclusive control of the Syrian government and its ally, Russia. That conclusion was bolstered by a careful examination of images of the canister recorded by Russian government journalists and Syrian activists conducted by Forensic Architecture, an investigative team led by Eyal Weizman, an expert in spatial analysis.

The Russia 24 report, which described The Intercept as “a sort of successor to WikiLeaks,” distorts Harkin’s reporting by failing to even mention the video of dead civilians, with foam covering their mouths, found in the building the canister was dropped on. Instead, the Russian state broadcaster focuses exclusively on Harkin’s reporting about video recorded by activists from the pro-rebel Douma Revolution group the same night in another location, at a makeshift hospital where children were treated for possible chemical exposure.

Russia 24 translated and quoted from an account provided to Harkin by Anas Sobheha, a medical worker in Douma who said he was in the hospital that night. Sobheha attributed the panic seen on the video to a false alarm triggered by a member of the Syria Civil Defence corps, known as the White Helmets, who said the children might have been exposed to chemicals. Harkin’s reporting suggests that the children were probably not exposed to the chlorine that was dropped in another part of Douma that night, but leaves open the possibility that the rush to treat them for possible exposure could have been the result of confusion. Harkin did not, as the Russia 24 report claims, conclude that the footage in the hospital “was surely staged.”

The Russian report also claimed, incorrectly, that Harkin observed that “a cloud of misinformation” had “enveloped the international community” after the reported attack in Douma. In fact, he wrote something quite different. “Beyond the war in Syria,” Harkin observed, “the cloud of misinformation that enveloped the attack in Douma stands as a cautionary tale.”

The Russia 24 producers illustrated their piece on Harkin’s work by borrowing images of him speaking about it to my Intercept colleague, Lauren Feeney, for a video report she produced on the ways in which open-source investigations have helped to cut through the fog of propaganda surrounding events in Syria. The Russian broadcast showed Harkin, but did not use audio of what he was saying, perhaps because his first words to Feeney were “there was some kind of chemical attack on the seventh of April 2018, in a place called Douma on the outskirts of Damascus.”

Russia 24 also borrowed footage from Feeney’s report showing Weizman looking at a reconstruction of the canister’s impact crater produced by his team. Weizman told The Intercept that Forensic Architecture’s analysis of the evidence suggested that there was a deadly chemical attack, and that the canister found in the same building as the dead bodies was the most likely cause of death. Weizman’s team also concluded that, at some stage after the bombing, that canister, and a second one that was found nearby, appear to have been moved a short distance.

“Our findings are much more subtle than what this ‘news piece’ makes them out to be: after a long analysis, which reviewed the architectural and video evidence, we found that the two canisters were dropped from the air which was exclusively controlled by the Syrian government and its Russian allies,” Weizman said after watching the Russia 24 report. “We also found evidence which suggests that the canisters might have been slightly moved from their original positions. But we do not know who touched them and for what reason. The latter finding does not affect our primary conclusion that the canisters were air dropped. Simply seizing on one aspect of our analysis — the one convenient to the government position — is a typical manipulation from the Russian post-truth factories.”

The Russian broadcast also includes a few frames from my own interview with Feeney, in which I discussed evidence that a Russia 24 journalist misled viewers last year by concealing the fact that his interview with a young boy seen in the hospital video had been conducted not in Douma, but at a Syrian military facility in central Damascus, close to the headquarters of President Bashar al-Assad’s ministry of defense.

The second part of Russia 24’s report is devoted to a series of tweets on the Douma attack posted by a Syrian producer for the BBC, Riam Dalati, and employs the same strategy of distortion by selective editing. In response to Harkin’s article, Dalati wrote that his own reporting indicated that the scene in the Douma hospital had been staged by activists close to the Army of Islam, a brutal Islamist militia that ruled Douma with an iron fist until April of last year.

Dalati, who provided no evidence for his claim, and has not responded to requests to make his reporting public, was treated as a suddenly unimpeachable source by Russia 24, as well as Russian diplomats, who eagerly shared screenshots of most of his tweet thread, even after he made his account private.

But Russian officials, and the country’s state broadcaster, were careful to omit Dalati’s first tweet on the subject, in which he praised Harkin’s analysis of how the events in Douma had degenerated into a propaganda battle between the Islamist rebels and two authoritarian governments, but also stated quite clearly that “The ATTACK DID HAPPEN.”

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