[Update (25th July 2014): on the 24th of July, the Islamic State destroyed the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah – indeed, the entire Mosque of the Prophet Yunus. This blog post accurately debunks a piece of propaganda that claimed its destruction before.]
For a time, the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah was the most popular story on one of the most popular news websites in the world – yet it was demonstrably false. Such false reports can expose people to risk or directly trigger harm. The Iraqi News, the Daily Mail and others need to retract and correct their stories immediately.
Casual falsehoods about religious conflict
On the 7th of July, the Daily Mail published ‘a completely fabricated story’ about George Clooney’s fiancée Amal Alamuddin’s mother (Baria Alamuddin), which insinuated religious conflict within the family in Lebanon – religious objections to the marriage – and alleged that they ‘joke[d] about traditions in the Druze religion that end[ed] up with the death of the bride‘.(1)
Clooney argued that such ‘irresponsibility…, to exploit religious differences where none exist’, to ‘inflame any part of that world for the sole reason of selling papers’, was ‘at the very least negligent and more appropriately dangerous‘ (especially for one of the biggest newspaper websites in the world, which is the source for many other organisations’ and individuals’ reports), and ‘should be criminal’. The Daily Mail ‘has proved time and time again that facts make no difference in the articles they make up’; they put people ‘in harm’s way’, to the point of ‘inciting violence‘.
When the Daily Mail apologised for a mistake made in “good faith”, Clooney pointed out that they ‘knew the story… was false and printed it anyway’; ‘it can be proved to be a lie…., a premeditated lie’; they’ve ‘exposed themselves’ as a tabloid that ‘makes up its facts to the detriment of its readers and to all the publications that blindly reprint them’.(2)
And they don’t only exploit religious differences where none exist.
As they would say themselves…
SHOCKING MOMENT WHEN DAILY MAIL PUBLISHED FALSE EVIDENCE OF ETHNIC CLEANSING
On the 9th of July, the Daily Mail reported the destruction of the legendary Tomb of the Prophet Jonah (or Yunus). The Mail journalist Sophie Jane Evans and an Associated Press (AP) reporter presented the ‘shocking moment ISIS militants took sledgehammers to Iraqi tombstones – smashing them to pieces…. in the north-west city of Mosul in Ninevah province’, though they did not even know if the tombstones were in Iraq or Syria or anywhere else.
They relayed: ‘One of the devastated tombstones belonged to the Prophet Jonah (Younis in Arabic) and was revered by Muslims and Christians alike, according to Iraqi authorities.’ Curiously, they republished al-Chalabi’s statement to Iraqi News that the Islamic State had ‘engaged in the process of tampering with the contents of the Mosque’, but not that ‘there is almost certain information stating the fact that the elements of ISIL dug up the grave of the Prophet Younis’.
The most popular story on one of the most popular news websites in the world
For a time, it was the most read story on the entire website, with more than 500 comments and 21,000 shares in the first twenty-four hours (and another 4,000 shares since then), and one of the most talked about Daily Mail stories amongst journalists.
The news spread with the terrifying imprimatur, “according to the Daily Mail“… It was copied-and-pasted or otherwise churned out by foreign news organisations such as [the Daily Express, the New York Post and] Russia Today (RT), and artistic and cultural professional services such as artnet news and Hyperallergic. (At least Hyperallergic’s reporter, Hrag Vartanian (@hragv), responded to the contrary evidence conscientiously.) And they’re just the professional news organisations around the world. They don’t include dreadful things like “prophecy alert”-sounding millenarian fundamentalist movements.
Worse, the Daily Mail report got trusted by community news services with constituencies in the region, such as [the Algemeiner,] the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), Cleveland Jewish News, the Jewish and Israel News Service (JNS), (Orthodox Jewish) Vos Iz Neias? (What’s the News?) and the Yeshiva World News.
It even got recycled by news organisations within the region, for example the Iranian news outlet Al-Alam, the Israeli Jerusalem Channel and the multinationally-edited, multilingual Shia International News Association Shafaqna.
Shafaqna publishes its stories in Arabic, English, Persian, Turkish and Urdu. The English and Urdu editions are produced and published in India, where ‘thousands‘ (allegedly 3,000) Shias had already volunteered to fight for their community’s holy places in Iraq before the latest confirmed acts of ethnic cleansing (and allegedly 25,000 had volunteered before the latest alleged acts) [or four – not four thousand, four].
Never let a good crisis go to waste
Millenarian Muslim human rights activists, such as Dr. Rafaqat Ali Gohar and his many Twitter accounts (e.g. @Criesfromdepths), promoted the news, as did Christian activists – Aleteia, Catholic Online, the millenarian prophecy alert-sounding Pastor Paul Begley (@pastorbegley) and the Shoebat family (father Walid Shoebat @WalidShoebat and son Theodore Shoebat @theodoreshoebat)…
Some people withdrew their support for the secular democratic resistance because they were too ignorant to tell the difference between the secularists and the Islamists. Others denigrated anyone of the Islamic faith as ‘muslim scum‘ (in the same way that Walid Shoebat and Theodore Shoebat identified the perpetrators as ‘Muslims’). Some believed that it was ‘time that Islam [got] taught a lesson‘. Meanwhile, a Muslim heard of the alleged desecration, was horrified, and disbelievingly asked the Islamic State (without reply), ‘is this news really true…???‘
Others used the report to excuse denial of Palestinian statehood, or to call for intervention by the United States or its proxies, the Israeli Defence Forces, Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Special Services Group (SSG)… One person offered: ‘Me, Personaly, I’d kill every last one of these animals! And I’d do so with Extreme Prejudice…No prisoners! A-BOMB.’
I realise that you can find someone saying anything somewhere on the internet, but as the internationalisation of the militias and the mobilisation of the Iranian armed forces demonstrate, crimes against cultural property have very real, very grim consequences; states as well as political movements are entering and exacerbating the conflict.
If anyone had done any research, they would have known that this story was false
Sources authoritative and contested
The most authoritative sources for Iraqi News, and thus for the uncurious Daily Mail, were the Nineveh police spokesman Ahmed al-Obaidi, whose unevidenced claim was published by Mawtani on the 18th of June, and the vaguely-identified “Nineveh official” (seemingly, Mosul reconstruction committee chairman) Zuhair Al-Chalabi, whose unevidenced claim was published by Iraqi News on the 4th of July. But Nineveh Province Council leader/mayor Bashar al-Kiki had made contrary claims in Niqash on the 17th of June. And I had highlighted the contradictory claims on Conflict Antiquities on the 5th of July.
Moreover, after the Daily Mail published its story, Christopher Jones (@cwjones89), Chuck Jones (@AWOL_tweets) and I (@conflictantiq) did the most basic research – checked if the place in the video was the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah – and demonstrated that it was not. All of that information was available to the Daily Mail. No specialist knowledge or skill was needed to access it. No general knowledge or skill was needed to access it. So, they may not have knowingly published a false story, but they did do it wilfully negligently.
Pete/wav3form commented on the Daily Mail: ‘Video is a fake, this is the same video that was used last year against al qaeda in Syria, thats not even Prophet Jonah’s grave.’ Just this morning, Arabic-speaking Abdul Malek (@truthsMaster) publicly explained that it was ‘from Syria, listen [to the] accent‘.
The Malaysian Review spontaneously included my correction in its article. I have tried to contact and correct Sophie Jane Evans (@SophieJane_E), repeatedly tried to correct or educate or bore the Daily Mail (@MailOnline) and other publishers, without a reply, let alone a retraction and correction.
Inflaming sensitivities, provoking violence: four types of harm
Such irresponsibility can cause four distinct types of harm:
- People may endure internal displacement or international refuge before it is necessary, which exposes them to hardship and risk both during movement and in their new residence. Refugee camps and cross-border towns in safe countries are under-resourced and insecure, so deprivation and exploitation are rife.
- People may distrust reports of violence and become desensitised to threats so, when there is real danger, they may not react in time to save themselves.
- People may distrust reports of violence and become desensitised to threats so, when there is real danger, they may not intervene in time to save others.
- Militias may be provoked or be provided with an excuse to commit reprisals, and embattled communities may be provoked to respond with perceived self-defence, so it will trigger or intensify paramilitary and intercommunal violence.
This is why, amidst gross violence, which may even include the event being falsely reported, especially because it may include the event being falsely reported, any false report is still utterly unacceptable. Iraqi News, the Daily Mail and others need to retract and correct their stories immediately.
[I added the Daily Express and the New York Post, and recategorised the Algemeiner as a community service, on the 17th of July 2014.]
2: I am also an admirer of the way USA Today puts the Daily Mail in speech marks rather than italics (in its headlines).