Documents obtained by MEE reveal how British contractors recruited Syrian citizen journalists - often without their knowledge - to promote 'moderate opposition'
by Ian Cobain, Alice Ross
Part 3 - Military intelligence officers
Individuals familiar with the project say that around nine companies were invited to bid for the contracts. They included a number of firms established by former British diplomats, intelligence officers and army officers.
Although the contracts were awarded by the UK’s foreign office, they were managed by the country’s Ministry of Defence, and sometimes by military intelligence officers.
These companies set up offices in Amman, Istanbul and, for a period, at Reyhanli in southeast Turkey. From here they would employ Syrians who would in turn recruit citizen journalists inside Syria, who were under the impression that they were working for the media offices of Syrian opposition groups.
“It was a shady, shady business,” says one person involved in the work, adding that frequently the individual journalist would believe they were working for an opposition group, and have no idea that a British communications company was running their media office, under contract to the UK government.
A second person involved with the initiative added that if you hired Syrians “to pump out propaganda, inside Syria and outside”, attributing their work in any way to the British government would have undermined its effectiveness.
Many of these citizen journalists would be using equipment that they believed was being supplied by opposition groups but which had in fact been bought using funds supplied by the UK government as part of the contract.
Some would be paid a retainer of between $250-$500 a month, while others were paid for individual pieces of media – around $50 for each picture or $200 for a short piece of video. These would then be distributed to Arabic language media organisations, through what purported to be the press offices of Syrian opposition groups.
Favoured video clips might be film of fighters from the moderate opposition handing out food, or using sophisticated weaponry to good effect.
“Then that would go to Sky News Arabia, BBC Arabic, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, those sort of outlets,” said one person involved.
Whenever British government officials wished to discuss the work, meetings would be held away from the newly established offices, to avoid contact with the locally hired Syrians. British staff running the offices would also be expected to prepare reports on their meetings with Syrians, which would be passed back to the foreign office.
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