On May 4, 2017, Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency published a report claiming that the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news network had been involved in the production of videos falsely purporting to show chemical weapons attacks in Syria. This report has since undergone several drastic rewrites but can still be found using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
The agency claimed to have been informed by a “military-diplomatic source” that they had reports, “confirmed by several channels” of a group of Al Jazeera stringers filming staged chemical attacks in three rebel-held settlements in Idlib Province - Saraqib, Ariha and Jisr al-Shugour.
The productions supposedly involved the use of “around 30 fire engines, an ambulance and up to 70 local residents with children, brought from a refugee camp,” who were apparently paid thousands of Syrian pounds and given food for their labor. The resulting footage would then, the source claimed, be uploaded “over the coming days until Sunday” (May 7), by the “customer and sponsor of the filming in one of the European countries.”
Unsurprisingly, Al Jazeera reacted swiftly to the claims, which had also been relayed by RIA Novosti’s sister English-language outlet, Sputnik News, by releasing a statement that same day which described them as “fake” and amounting to “defamation punishable by law.”
“Al Jazeera would like to stress that the network did not film any chemical attack material in Syria and that our organisation will continue its field coverage of the war in Syria with the objectivity the network is known for.
Al Jazeera challenged Sputnik to prove any of its claims, to provide any evidence supporting these accusations, or to announce the source of the lie that they published.
Al Jazeera maintains all its legal rights and will take legal action against Sputnik agency, which has committed a crime of defamation punishable by law in a number of developed countries.”
Unusually, RIA Novosti and Sputnik issued a retraction (of sorts) the following day, stating that the claims made by their source had “not been confirmed” and apologizing to their readers, though not Al Jazeera directly:
“After a rigorous check, this information was not confirmed by other sources. The agency cannot consider this information credible and tenders apologies to its readers and subscribers.”
But on May 8, the Russian outlets executed another U-turn, reporting now that the story had been “confirmed” to them by the Russian Ministry of Defense’s Center for the Reconciliation of the Warring Sides in Syria:
This third version of the story, carried quotes from the Center:
"According to information from a number of sources among local residents and opposition formations … special ‘video brigades’ carried out staged filming in the past week of the alleged consequences of shelling and airstrikes, including the use of ‘poisonous substances’," the reconciliation center said.
The center added that some of the "consultants" of the brigades were "recognized by the locals as cameramen shooting news in the region for the Al-Jazeera channel," the center added.
Al Jazeera has yet to respond to this reiteration of the claims, which are now backed by the Ministry of Defense itself.
The problem with assessing the veracity of the RIA and Sputnik claims is that the footage alleged to have been shot in Idlib Province has not been broadcast or uploaded over the weekend, as the original source claimed would happen. So there is no video to either corroborate or debunk the claims.
Instead, we can only cast doubt on the Russian story by looking at the chain of evidence presented and evaluating the reliability of those sources.
The claims made by the Russian outlets rely solely on statements from within the black box of the Russian Ministry of Defense (presumably the origin of the first “military-diplomatic source”) with no supporting evidence whatsoever.
The Russian government directly supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad and has repeatedly lied about the actions of both the Syrian and Russian militaries in that conflict, as demonstrated time and time again by Polygraph.info.
Furthermore, the specific body to which the latest quote is attributed to, the Center for the Reconciliation of the Warring Sides in Syria, itself has a poor track record, once again documented on this site.
In comparison, Al Jazeera is a well-respected international news agency whose reports on the Syrian civil war have routinely corresponded with those from other media outlets and NGOs.
It should also be noted that the original, anonymous source for the story had framed their accusations against Al Jazeera as a continuation of an existing campaign of faking footage.
From the archived May 4 version of the RIA report:
“The effectiveness of the ‘White Helmets’’ television spectacular with the staging of the supposed chemical attack with sarin by the Syrian authorities in Khan Sheikhoun has inspired the terrorists to continue shooting their ‘television series.’”
This claim rests upon the notion that the Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack was staged. But there is an overwhelming body of evidence indicating that the rebel-held village was indeed attacked with sarin, with sources ranging from videos and statements made by medics and activists at the time of the attack, to witness testimony collected by reporters such as Kareem Shaheen of The Guardian, who visited the scene just two days later, and forensic analyses conducted by the French and U.S. intelligence services and finally, the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Warfare.
Since the Khan Sheikhoun attack did indeed happen, the claim made in the original RIA report - that rebel groups would “continue” fabricating such videos, rests on false grounds.
The rationale behind such statements from the Russian Ministry of Defense, and those made on April 11  by President Vladimir Putin, when he claimed that “similar provocations” were being prepared in the suburbs of Damascus, may, as Al Jazeera suggested in their response to Sputnik, be far darker:
“Al Jazeera warns that the timing of the publication of such a false report may be a prelude to a real attack on civilians in Syria under the pretext of their published news and that it could be used to cover up the crimes committed by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by blaming others while the investigation into the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun is ongoing...
Finally, Al Jazeera would like to highlight to the international community its concern that if a chemical attack was launched, as it was described in Sputnik's fabricated article, then the Russian agency would be considered to be a conspirator with those involved.”