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AP freelancer says report of rebel chemical weapons use not hers

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, it’s 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 story’s release, Mint Press’s 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.”

Gavlak produced a series of emails detailing her unsuccessful attempt to have Mint News either clarify the article’s background or remove it from the site. The emails begin almost immediately after publication of the story on Aug. 29th and continued through the weekend until Sept. 2.

The initial email detailing the filing of the story – Gavlak admits to helping Ababneh convert his Arabic reporting into English – reads “Pls find the Syria story I mentioned uploaded on Google Docs. This should go under Yahya Ababneh’s byline. I helped him write up his story but he should get all the credit for this.”

After seeing the story published under her name and the amount of interest it was generating – in large part because of the credibility lent to it by her relationship with AP, which bills itself as the “world’s oldest and largest newsgathering organization” – Gavlak demanded her name be removed. Muhawesh refused.

"We will not be removing your name from the byline as this is an existential issue for MintPress and an issue of credibility as this will appear as though we are lying," Gavlak said Muhawesh responded.

The story remains on the website with a note that Gavlak “researched and wrote” the story.

Gavlak implied that the nearly three-week delay in her public repudiation of the claim was due to legal advice and pressure from the AP to let the controversy over the story die down since the story, which was thinly sourced, was not picked up by any major media outlets.

In a statement to McClatchy, Paul Colford, AP’s director of media relations, declined to discuss details of AP’s internal discussions or its communications with Gavlak about the story. But he said it was “obviously of paramount importance that this was not seen as assigned, edited or distributed in anyway [by the Associated Press.] AP had absolutely nothing to do with it.”