A few days ago, Iraqi social media users were particularly excited about a new video that had shown up online. The word on social media – and indeed, the caption under the video – was that it featured a pilot in the Iraqi military who had been captured by the extremist group known as the Islamic State and that the film showed the man being reunited with his family. He had finally been able to escape as the group had been pushed out of Iraq and was returning to the bosom of his family. It’s an emotional video and the idea that the pilot had survived the brutal extremist group and managed to escape, captured attention and hearts. The video was republished many times, on many Iraqis’ Facebook pages as a sign of the country’s victory over the Islamic State, or IS, group.
Unfortunately, while the video is real, the new story behind it is not.
It is easy enough to discover that the video is not real. The original dates back to November 2016 and the individual in the emotional clip is Iraqi, but he is a journalist, not a pilot.
Some of the posters corrected the mistake but even if one outlet removes the video, another puts it up again – and usually without checking.
The journalist in the video is Rabee al-Halaby, a 29-year-old reporter who left his hometown, Mosul, over three years ago when the extremist group first took control of the northern city. Al-Halaby had been working in the media for several years when the IS group took control of Mosul and like many of his colleagues, he heard that the extremists might not have a particularly good attitude towards journalists. So he left the city.
NIQASH contacted al-Halaby for the full story. He says he left Mosul on June 13, 2014, a few days after the extremists arrived. Like many others he then went to the nearby semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
“But I never stopped worrying about my family and their fate,” al-Halaby says. “I continued working as a journalist there too and I did try to contact my family, but I failed. For a full year, I didn’t know what was happening to them and they didn’t know what was happening to me.”
The IS group banned mobile phone and Internet use in Mosul for fear that locals were giving the Iraqi military information about them.
Around a year after the IS group occupied Mosul, word leaked that the extremists had executed dozens of journalists, accusing them of spying. Al-Halaby felt he had to get word to his family that he was OK. He was even able to speak with his father for a few seconds on a very weak mobile phone network. Even though his mother had fallen sick worrying about him, al-Halaby had to be satisfied with knowing that his family were aware that he was still alive and well, and that they too were OK.
This was the first and last call over the next two years. When al-Halaby heard that the Iraqi military were planning their final offensive against the IS group, he asked that he be allowed to join them and report from the front line.
On the front line a lot of the time, al-Halaby says that despite the danger he never stopped thinking of his family, wondering if he would see them, whether they would be the next family fleeing up the street on foot, past the soldiers.
In November 2016, heavy fighting reached the Kokajli neighbourhood in Mosul; al-Halaby’s family home is in the Khadra neighbourhood, about two blocks away. Due to security risks the military wouldn’t let reporters go into the area and there was a major wave of displaced locals fleeing the fighting. But al-Halaby didn’t see any familiar faces among them. Finally, al-Halaby managed to call his father, telling him to leave his house and saying that he would direct the family through safer streets to where the Iraqi military was located and where they would be safe.
“Finally my family arrived, and it was a very special moment,” al-Halaby recalls now: This is the moment the video depicts. “I hugged everyone and held up my father because he was about to fall.”
Even though all this happened literally years ago al-Halaby still sees the video of his family reunion doing the rounds on social media. Different stories appear with it and often his video is used for propaganda purposes.
Al-Halaby says he tried to contact some of the outlets and Facebook page editors when he saw the latest incarnation, which had him posing as an Iraqi fighter pilot. Some of the individuals he contacted corrected the mistake but once again, it has gone viral on Iraqi social media and even if one outlet removes the video, another puts it up again – and usually without checking.
“Unfortunately rumours and fake news like this spread so quickly in Iraq,” al-Halaby told NIQASH. “In fact it was fake news that allowed the IS group to occupy Mosul. They arrived with only a small number of fighters but used videos and other propaganda to make people believe the Iraqi army had collapsed. It is one of their main weapons.”
“Everyone needs to fight this phenomenon,” al-Halaby concludes – as a journalist as well as a victim of social media he feels deeply about this. “The media should fight these rumours; the legislators should enact laws that punish those who spread false news like this and there should be campaigns to raise awareness among ordinary people on how to deal with any rumours or information published on social media.”