US man sorry for 'Gay Girl in Damascus' blog hoax
A US student based in Scotland apologised on Monday for writing the fake "Gay Girl in Damascus" blog, saying he feared the hoax could harm the efforts of real-life opponents of the Syrian regime.
Tom MacMaster, a bearded 40-year-old Edinburgh University masters student and Middle East activist, confessed that he was "Amina Abdallah Arraf", supposedly a Syrian lesbian writing about the crackdown in the country.
The Arraf character became a media sensation with her reports on the movement against President Bashar Al-Assad, posting as "an out Syrian lesbian's thoughts on life, the universe and so on".
Then last Tuesday someone claiming to be her cousin wrote on the website that Arraf had been arrested, prompting supporters to set up a "Free Amina Abdallah" group on Facebook that attracted nearly 15,000 followers.
But her supposed arrest sparked scepticism about whether Arraf was for real and MacMaster finally came clean in a message on the blog on Sunday, in which he admitted he was the sole author of the posts.
"I never expected this level of attention," MacMaster wrote in an "Apology to readers" which he datelined from Istanbul, Turkey, where he and his wife were on holiday.
"While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground."
But in interviews on Monday, he said he was worried that his actions could boost the Syrian regime's claims that other Internet activists reporting on the crackdown were also fake.
"The fact that they can use this as an example of how the media makes up stuff really is something that troubles me," he told the New York Times by telephone.
In an attempt to explain why he carried out the hoax, MacMaster told the newspaper he was "somebody who has aspirations as a novelist".
He also expressed regret to Britain's The Guardian newspaper, saying he wanted to shut the blog and "phase out the character" but now realised that "having her abducted was not the way to do it".
Appearing by videophone with close cropped hair and a red-tinged beard, MacMaster added that it was "only a matter of time before somebody in the Syrian regime says 'see, all our opposition is fake, it's not real".
Edinburgh University said it would "suspend (MacMaster's) computing privileges" pending the results of an investigation into his behaviour.
"The University will investigate whether the student has breached University computing regulations," a spokeswoman said in a statement.
The Guardian said that in recent days, bloggers had uncovered evidence that pointed towards MacMaster and his wife Britta Froelicher, who is studying at Scotland's Saint Andrews University for a doctorate in Syrian economic development.
Major doubts emerged over the authenticity of the blog last week, when photographs that were supposedly of Arraf were revealed to be of a Croatian woman living in London.
The revelation of the hoax has sparked fury among some former followers of the blog, particularly gays and those who had been campaigning for Arraf's release.
On GayMiddleEast.com, Sami Hamwi, the pseudonym for the Damascus editor of the website, wrote: "To Mr MacMaster, I say shame on you!!!... What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger."
"This just makes me so angry," said one comment on the Facebook group set up to press for her release.
"The situation in Syria is too dire for this sort of gameplaying!"
© 2011 AFP