BEIRUT -- A freelance contributor to the Associated Press whose byline appeared on a controversial story that alleged Syrian rebels had gassed themselves in an accident told McClatchy on Saturday that she did not write the article and has been seeking to have her name removed from it since it was published by a small Minnesota-based website.
Dale Gavlak, a long time contributor from the Middle East to AP, released an email statement to McClatchy and several blogs denying any role in reporting the story, which was published Aug. 29 by Mint Press News, which describes itself with the phrase independent advocacy journalism. The article carried her byline along with that of Yahya Ababneh, a Jordanian Arab-language journalist.
The story likely would have gone unnoticed in pre-Internet days. But thanks to social media such as Twitter and Facebook, its become a crucial piece of evidence for those arguing that the rebels, not the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, were most likely responsible for an Aug. 21 chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs.
Within hours of the storys release, Mint Presss website crashed from excessive traffic, and the story continues to be cited by conspiracy-minded websites and supporters of the embattled Assad government in the wake of a U.N. investigation whose findings, many say, implicate the Syrian military.
In a phone conversation on Saturday, Gavlak, whose AP connection is often held up as evidence of the reliability of the Mint Press story, confirmed the statement and described a timeline in which she had been trying for weeks to get Mint Press to remove her name from the story. Gavlak referenced her emailed statement in the interview, saying she could not go much beyond it for legal reasons.
"Mint Press News incorrectly used my byline for an article it published on August 29, 2013, alleging chemical weapons usage by Syrian rebels, the statement reads. Despite my repeated requests, made directly and through legal counsel, they have not been willing to issue a retraction stating that I was not the author.
Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author of the Mint Press News piece, the statement added. I did not travel to Syria, have any discussions with Syrian rebels, or do any other reporting on which the article is based. The article is not based on my personal observations and should not be given credence based on my journalistic reputation.
Because of the incident, Gavlak and at least one other contributor to Mint News have ended their relationships with the website, which was founded nearly two years ago by Mnar Muhawesh, who is in her mid 20s.
Muhawesh, who was described in a January 2012 story on the MinnPost website as the daughter of Palestinian immigrants who graduated from college with a degree in journalism, did not respond to requests for comment left on her cell phone and sent to her Twitter and email accounts.
However, she later released a statement in which she said Gavlak and Ababneh had both come under pressure to disavow the story.
We are aware of the tremendous pressure that Dale and some of our other journalists are facing as a result of this story, and we are under the same pressure as a result to discredit the story, the statement said. We are unwilling to succumb to those pressures for MintPress holds itself to the highest journalistic ethics and reporting standards.