Beyond the Amina hoax: Real cases in the Middle East

A Gay Girl in Damascus was a personal blog, said to be written by a young woman named Amina Arraf, that appeared to give an everyday record of being a lesbian in modern-day Syria. Following the events of the Arab Spring, as the political situation in Syria grew less stable, the blog attracted more readers and media coverage. Its compelling descriptions of Syrian life gave many a way to connect emotionally to a distant crisis. On June 6, the author’s “cousin” wrote that the blogger had been seized by the security services.

When a blogger is reported detained, we at CPJ investigate the situation quickly and comprehensively. CPJ was already in contact with Syrians who followed the Amina blog. Some found the story cursorily believable. It soon became clear to us, however, that none of Amina’s local contacts had ever met her in person. Other normal background checks among communities that we believed would have had close connections to Amina also came up with nothing.

Amina did not exist. The blog was created and written by Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old married student at Edinburgh University. As the real story of the fraud broke over the next few days, many of my closest friends and colleagues–Liz Henry at women’s media site BlogHer, Andy Carvin at NPR, Jillian York at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation–were at the forefront of a group of online investigators and journalists that uncovered the truth.

Ironically, at the time of the original post, I was in Beirut talking to real Syrians about the detentions of online journalists. Some of them had befriended Amina online, and were profoundly disturbed that she was a fraud.

Beyond the time-sink of watching the Net collectively pursue a story, the undermining of important ties that can help protect vulnerable writers in times of danger, and the sympathetic anger and hurt of many at being betrayed, the Amina hoax continues to be a distraction. It has drawn attention away from genuine cases of imprisoned bloggers and online journalists in the region.

Amina’s story–her original blog and her subsequent revelations–shouldn’t cloud the real cases of bloggers and journalists in Syria and the wider region who face genuine danger.

For instance, Tal al-Mallohi was sentenced in February to five years in prison for violating Syria’s state security laws. The court proceedings remain secret but she was prosecuted, her supporters say, because of postings on her blog. To make matters worse, she was only 19 when she was first arrested, making her the youngest human rights case in the region. The campaign to free al-Mallohi has a website and Facebook group. The U.S. State Department has also protested the prosecution.

Elsewhere, in the United Arab Emirates, five bloggers and commentators accused of undermining public order went on trial. As we reported at the time of their arrest, the UAE bloggers include the administrators of a banned forum. That forum, CPJ research shows, is one focused on politics, pluralism and democracy. While the UAE plans to hold the trial in secret in order to, in the words of the official state media, “ensure no pressure is exercised on the court,” diplomatic pressure from the UAE’s allies–encouraged by individuals raising the issue with their representatives–could make a difference.

Legitimate writers in the region risk their freedom and safety every day to simply comment on what they see around them. This is difficult and dangerous enough without them having to contend with the pathologies of liars inserting themselves into that discussion.