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'Cheap' And 'Tacky': Russian TV Uses 2016 Film Set Images In Report On 'Staged' Syria Gas Attack

Unidentified volunteers give aid to children at a hospital following an alleged chemical attack on the rebel-held Syrian town of Douma on April 7.
Unidentified volunteers give aid to children at a hospital following an alleged chemical attack on the rebel-held Syrian town of Douma on April 7.

Russian state television has shown footage from the 2016 set of a Syrian film in a report pushing Moscow's claim that a suspected gas attack in Syria was "staged."

The April 22 report by state-run Channel One aired two weeks after the suspected gas attack in the Syrian town of Douma that the United States, France, and Britain blame on the forces of Syria's Russia-backed leader, Bashar al-Assad.

Those Western allies conducted missile strikes on Syrian government targets in response to the April 7 incident, while Russia denies any chemical attack took place and says "what did take place was...staged."

The Channel One report backed that same position, accusing Western politicians and media of "ignoring clear evidence that there was no chemical attack" in Douma.

As the news anchor cited alleged witness accounts that the videos purporting to show the aftermath of the attack were staged, the segment showed behind-the-scenes images from the set of a 2016 short film being produced at the time by Syrian director Humam Husari.

The independent Russian television network Dozhd, whose April 23 report flagged the old photographs used in the Channel One report, noted that the images were previously published by Reuters and the Chinese tabloid Global Times.

The Reuters report said Husari's film was a fictional retelling of what United Nations inspectors concluded was the use of sarin gas in rebel-controlled Ghouta, outside Damascus, in 2013.

Washington blamed Syrian forces for that attack, an allegation Assad's government denies.

Channel One did not immediately respond to a request for comment on April 24.

Russian state TV anchorman Dimtry Kiselyov (file photo)
Russian state TV anchorman Dimtry Kiselyov (file photo)

Images from the set of Husari's film were also used in an April 22 segment on Russian state media boss Dmitry Kiselyov's weekly current-events program on state-run Rossia-1.

The reporter for the segment, Yevgeny Poddubny, claims that there is a "critical amount of evidence" showing that "foreign intelligence services" are "staging" video materials in Syria in order to "demonize" Assad.

The report then cuts straight to a man -- identified in the report as part of Husari's production team on the film -- who is quoted through a translator as saying that the extras were made to look as if they had "truly suffered from a chemical attack."

Based on the Russian translation, at no point does the man interviewed suggest the scenes were being staged for anything other than Husari's film, which from the beginning was billed as a fictional drama based on real events.

'Many Witnesses'

In an April 24 telephone interview from northern Syria, Husari confirmed to RFE/RL that the man shown in the video -- Faris Muhammad Mayasa -- was involved in the production, "as many people were."

"It's important for me [and] for the world to know that it's a drama production. It's not staging or faking any chemical attacks," Husari said.

"When we made this production in 2016, we talked about it, we didn't hide it," he added.

Husari called the use of images from his set in the Russian news segments as "very cheap and very tacky," saying that "many witnesses" and video footage demonstrate that chemical attacks were carried out.

The World Health Organization said 43 people who died at the site of the suspected chemical attack in Douma, Syria, on April 7 suffered "symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals."

Inspectors from the Organization of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a global agency that monitors chemical weapons, arrived in Douma on April 21 to collect samples at the site of the alleged April 7 gas attack.

"I think this is a cheap attempt by the Russians to deny the obvious, and I think this is very desperate," Husari said.

Russia has cited a state television report in which a boy says he took part in a fake chemical-attack video as evidence that images are being manipulated to discredit the Syrian government.

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya pledged on April 19 that the Rossia-24 report would be shown to the UN Security Council.

An April 24 report by the U.S. website The Intercept indicates that the TV segment showed the boy and his father at the Syrian Army officers club in Damascus.

Poddubny, who was also the reporter for that segment about the boy, insisted on Twitter that the interview "was recorded without pressure on the child's father and the boy himself."

Russian state television has broadcast old, unrelated images over the years in news reports that hew closely to Kremlin messaging.

In 2014, Channel One aired a nearly 20-year-old photograph of a mass grave from Russia's first war with Chechen separatists in the 1990s, describing it as one of several "horrifying images" of the war between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In a 2014 report by Rossia-1 claiming that "every day peaceful civilians continue to die" in eastern Ukraine, Rossia-1 used an image, featuring a corpse, that was previously used 18 months earlier in a report on a counterterrorist operation in Russia's North Caucasus region.

Kiselyov later called the use of the image "an error" but "in no way a manipulation," adding that "young, nymph video technicians" may have been responsible.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.