A group of British and American supporters of Syrian dictator and suspected war criminal Bashar al-Assad wants to put the media "on trial" in a May 2018 panel, where they had planned to determine whether journalists for Britain's Channel 4 and the BBC — who reported from conflict zones in Syria and Libya — should be considered terrorists.
The panel was scheduled for 27 May 2018 at Leeds City Museum, but the museum has since cancelled the event. It included Vanessa Beeley, a British blogger who has gained notoriety by churning out regime propaganda, and Patrick Henningsen, a former writer for Alex Jones's conspiracy trolling network InfoWars.com.
Both are now editors for 21stCenturyWire.com, a disreputable web site that posts pro-Assad disinformation among a garbled cornucopia of pseudoscience and Holocaust denial. The site often hosts David Icke, a British personality who sells the belief that the world is secretly controlled by a race of shape-shifting lizard people who have faked mass casualty events like 9/11.
The panel was also to include Peter Ford, former UK ambassador to Syria, university professors Tim Hayward (professor of Environmental Political Theory at the University of Edinburgh) and Piers Robinson (chair of Politics, Society and Political Journalism at Sheffield University), along with Robert Stuart, who believes that horrific BBC footage documenting the aftermath of a 2016 attack on a school in northern Syria was staged.
According to the event's web site, the panel was set to focus on whether journalists from Britain's Channel 4 and the BBC, who reported from Syria and Libya in 2016 and 2011, respectively, violated the UK's Terrorism Act:
The panel of experts will this time focus on the media's propensity to either embed its journalists directly with terrorist forces, most notably Channel 4's Krishnan Guru-Murthy embedded with Nour Al Zinki in Syria, or disseminate material directly from terrorist sources. In Syria, the White Helmets have been overwhelmingly the source from which establishment and corporate media have taken their information. Previous reporting from Libya in 2011 followed a similar pattern when the BBC's Ian Pannell was embedded with Islamic extremist, anti-government forces, while the overwhelming media narrative complied with information from those same sources.
The question therefore arises, by aligning itself to terrorist organisations, by gaining entry into sovereign nations by way of these forces and by reporting their line while misleading the general public that they are merely 'Activists' or 'Opposition forces', has the mainstream print and broadcast media acted in contravention of the UK Terrorism Act?
The Committee to Protect Journalists' advocacy director Courtney Radsch told us that the event bore alarming similarities to what authoritarian governments do in order to repress independent journalism — namely, equating reporting about terrorism with terrorism itself:
That is extremely problematic. In the past two years we have seen record numbers of reporters jailed. There are journalists around the world who are facing years in prison using this same justification.
She pointed to Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (also known as Shawkan) who is currently jailed, and faces charges of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood group in Egypt. During his incarceration, he was awarded the 2018 UNESCO press freedom award, drawing inevitable criticism from Egyptian authorities.
Additionally, Radsch said, Syria is currently the deadliest place in the world for journalists to work. Since the start of the years-long war, 119 journalists have died covering it. Creating lists of journalists a group aligned with the government doesn't like, she said, is "not going to go over well."
Although characters like Henningsen and Beeley have been propelled into the limelight by casting themselves as heroes in a supposed anti-imperialist movement against Western-initiated regime change in Syria, their ideas would otherwise be considered fringe. Henningsen has written that mass shootings in the United States — such as the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre — are hoaxes, as was the moon landing and 9/11. Beeley, meanwhile, has written that she believes the struggle for human rights in Gaza and the civil war in Syria are proxy battles against an overarching Zionist conspiracy to dominate the world.
Since the Russians became militarily involved in Syria in 2015, however, Western activists like Beeley and Henningsen have been looped in as key conveyors of propaganda, which is often meant to obfuscate facts and promote confusion in an effort to maintain global paralysis as the brutal war has dragged on since 2011. The result has been, in the words of former Middle East editor for the Guardian Brian Whitaker, a "battle in which honest reporting and the search for truth have come under sustained attack."
Scott Lucas, a journalist and professor of political science and international studies at the University of Birmingham, told us the Russian government has leveraged activists like Henningsen and Beeley as attackers in that battle:
You find a theme for your campaign and you just put it out there. You know your propaganda sympathizers will pick it up. You don’t have to pay them to do it, but at times you will flatter them - in this case the flattery that comes with being asked to speak at a conference or write an opinion piece or go on [Kremlin-funded network] RT and talk for a couple minutes.
A lot of [the motivation] is ego.They‘re getting flattery from the Russians. Vanessa gets to go over to Moscow and meet [Russian government spokeswoman Maria] Zakharova. She gets to go to Syria and get the flattery of the officials there. They play to that sense of ego and play to her desire that she be seen as a 'journalist', which is very important to Henningsen as well.
We sent an email to Beeley and Henningsen seeking comment for this story. Instead of responding to our questions, Henningsen posted a screenshot of our message to his social media account.
A spokesperson for Leeds City Museum sent us the following statement from the City Council on the cancellation:
Leeds City Museum recently received a request to host a panel discussion on May 27. Since accepting the booking, we have been made aware of further details regarding some of the content and discussion topics which would be part of the event.
Whilst the council and museums service are always in favour of promoting free speech and debate, our booking policy clearly states that events are subject to cancellation.
In line with that policy, we have decided that the museum is not an appropriate venue for this event and have informed the organisers that their booking has been cancelled.