The Great Escape: Has Avaaz Been Lying About Its Role in Syria?
Around 8 a.m. on February 22, Syrian security forces attempting to prop up the Bashar al Assad regime shelled a makeshift media center in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, killing the American war reporter Marie Colvin and the French photographer Remi Ochlik. Four other journalists who survived the blast, including Colvin’s Irish photographer, Paul Conroy, and French Le Figaro journalist Edith Bouvier, who were transported to a nearby hospital and treated for serious shrapnel wounds. Bouvier’s colleague, the French photographer William Daniels, accompanied them, while Spanish El Mundo reporter Javier Espinosa stayed behind to report near the now-decimated center. For almost a week, the surviving journalists remained trapped in Homs.
On the morning of February 28, the activist organization Avaaz reported that it had coordinated Conroy’s escape to Lebanon and that 13 activists within its network had been killed in the effort. “This operation was carried by Syrians with the help of Avaaz,” read the press release. “No other agency was involved.” By the end of the day, Avaaz founder Ricken Patel had been interviewed on CNN and the BBC, and The Guardian had published a short profile titled, “The activist organisation behind Paul Conroy’s rescue in Syria.” Admiring profiles in Time and on NPR soon followed.
A week after his escape, I called Conroy, who was recovering in a London hospital, to ask him about Avaaz’s role. “I can sum it up in one word,” he said. “Bollocks.” Conroy had never heard of Avaaz, he told me, until he “saw them on television, saying how [they] helped me get out.” Has Avaaz, a group that quickly became a darling among Arab Spring sympathizers in the West, been lying all this time?