The mystery of Amina Arraf

Questions have been raised about the identity of the Syrian blogger since news broke of her abductio

At first, it seemed like a straightforward -- if disheartening -- case of yet another internet activist paying the price for speaking out against the regime under who's watch they have the misfortune to live. On Monday evening Amina Arraf, a young gay woman living and blogging in Damascus, was reportedly kidnapped by armed men -- assumed to be members of Syria's notorious secret services -- and taken to an unknown location.

"We do not know who has taken her, so we do not know who to ask for her back," wrote her cousin, Rania Ismail on the homepage of Amina's blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus.

Major news organisations and social media sites around the world quickly picked up on this harrowing tale of a young woman punished for her outspoken beliefs and commitment to her sexual identity -- the "Free Amina" Facebook page amassed over 15,000 followers in the days since her disappearance.

But the story has quickly unravelled.

Doubts about Amina's identity surfaced after it emerged that the photographs purportedly of her were in fact taken from the Facebook page of Jelena Lecic, a Croatian woman living in London who has no connection to any lesbian woman in Damascus. Journalists and investigators have been unable to find any traces of a Damascene woman whose personal life corresponds to that of Amina, and the US embassy in Damascus also has no record of her existence, which is highly suspicious considering her claims to have dual American citizenship .

So, who is Amina Arraf? It is perfectly possible that "Amina" is merely the pen name of a Syrian activist who has been careful in concealing their identity from the authorities -- although perhaps not careful enough. Equally, there is a possibility that the blogger is entirely a work of cynical online fiction (cases of which have been reported before, as in the instance of Plain Layne, a young bisexual female blogger who transpired to exist purely in the imagination of Odin Soli, a middle-aged man who had previously blogged as Acanit, a young Muslim lesbian with a Jewish girlfriend).

Amina's story raises myriad questions about the elusiveness of online identity and the problematic nature of trying to verify information purely through the internet. But however mysterious or suspicious this particular case may be, it should not make us forget the plight of thousands of other bloggers and activists in the Middle East and across the world who have been forcibly detained for expressing their views.

And if the writer of A Gay Girl in Damascus does exist, and is currently being held by the Syrian security services, we can only hope that the media flurry surrounding this story will in some way aid his or her circustances by raising awareness of the situation in the country.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a freelance journalist currently living and working in London. She has written for the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist online.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder