France: Reprisals against PPLAAF and Global Witnessintensify with new SLAPP procedures
Since the publication of their report"Undermining sanctions" the two organisations have been targeted with four legal complaints in France
(Paris, 23 November 2020) – SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) procedures brought against PPLAAF and Global Witness by those mentioned in their investigations are the latest attempt to retaliate against organisations working to expose the truth. A coalition of 48 whistleblowers and journalist protection organisations and their partners in anti-corruption and human rights is calling on the international community to act immediately to stem the tide of this kind of legal harassment against public interest watchdogs.
The real purpose of such lawsuits is not to convict journalists or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) but rather to harass them, to create a hostile enough environment to encourage self-censorship, to try in vain to discredit the message of these public interest organisations, and importantly, to divert public attention away from the extreme gravity of the information published.
On July 2nd, 2020, Global Witness andPPLAAF published a joint report titled “Undermining sanctions” taking a critical look at billionaire Dan Gertler's business empire. Le Monde, Bloomberg, and Haaretz also participated in this important international investigation.
Dan Gertler is an Israeli mining magnate operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who is close to Joseph Kabila, former President of the DRC from 2001 to 2019. In 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued sanctions against Dan Gertler and his companies. OFAC claims that Gertler “has used his close friendship with DRC President Joseph Kabila to act as a middleman for mining asset sales in the DRC, requiring some multinational companies to go through Gertler to do business with the Congolese state.” As a result, OFACestimates that between 2010 and 2012 alone, “the DRC reportedly lost over $1.36 billion in revenues from the underpricing of mining assets that were sold to offshore companies linked to Gertler.”
As a result of these sanctions, individuals or companies with a commercial connection to the United States are prohibited from conducting any transactions with Mr. Gertler. Any non-U.S.individual or company may also be subject to sanctions if they conduct commercial transactions with Dan Gertler or his entities.
The report indicated the potential existence of a system apparently set up and designed to conceal payments and deposits of up to several million dollars. Such a system would have enabled Mr. Gertler to continue to profit from his business activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) despite the sanctions against him. The investigation was partly based on documents provided by whistleblowers whose anonymity has been preserved.
Before the report was even published, the two organisations and a number of the journalists who participated in the investigations were subjected to what amounts to a serious and sustained campaign of retaliation which only escalated once the report was published online.
PPLAAF President William Bourdon stated an attempt to blackmail him was made by Dan Gertler’s lawyers in an effort to pressure the organisation not to publish the report. Haaretz reporter Gur Megiddo said he received verbal threats from Mr. Dan Gertler in an attempt to prevent him from publishing his article. On 1 July 2020, just before the report was published, the main bank identified in the investigation, Afriland FirstBank RDC, filed a complaint againstPPLAAF and Global Witness at the Paris Prosecutor's office. The complaint makes serious accusations against the two organisations and follows a threat that such legal action would be taken in a letter sent on 11 June 2020 by Gertler’s legal team, including lawyers working at the London firm of Carter Ruck, on behalf of the sanctioned businessman.
The legal complaint made by AfrilandFirst Bank RDC has been accompanied by an outrageous campaign on social media attempting to denigrate and discredit PPLAAF and Global Witness. Dozens of videos dumped on Twitter falsely accuse the two organisations of all sorts of things, including being “criminal” organisations and being used by George Soros to allow him to take control, through his network, of Congolese mines. While no one has taken responsibility for this threatening campaign, some of the material published on social networks are recordings that Mr. Gertler and his representatives had threatened to release if the report was published.
At the same time, the complaint was filed in Paris on behalf of Dan Gertler, Avigdor Liebermann, the former Israeli Defence Minister whose name was mentioned in the Haaretz article, announced that he had lodged a complaint with the Israeli Press Council against two Haaretz journalists. While Mr. Liebermann has the right to do so, the timing suggests his action is part of a wider effort to distract attention away from the substance of the article. On21 July 2020, Dan Gertler also sued Haaretz for libel, demanding compensation of 8 million shekels (about 2 million euros).
In France, on 2 October 2020, Mr. Emmanuel Daoud and Mr. Eric Moutet, lawyers for Dan Gertler and Afriland Bank RDC respectively, along with Mr. Patrick Klugman, the lawyer representing two other individuals whose names came up during the investigation (Elie Berros and Ruben Katsobashvili), announced that they had filed three defamation complaints against PPLAAF and Global Witness before the senior investigating judge in Paris.
“These attacks demonstrate that when non-governmental organisations undertake important public interest investigations into allegations of serious abuses, the first reaction of the people involved is to retaliate. This is a concerted and orchestrated effort to discredit the substance of the report by attacking those who did the work, if not to bankrupt and to silence them”, said Anna Myers, Executive Director of the Whistleblowing International Network (WIN) and Jean-Philippe Foegle, Coordination and Advocacy Officer at the Maison des lanceurs d’alerte.
These SLAPP suits must stop – the legal system must not be allowed to be misused to help those who commit serious abuses to escape accountability.
- Bloom (France)
- Attac (France)
- Sherpa (France)
- Anticor (France)
- Nothing2Hide (France)
- CFDT Cadres (France)
- Maison des Lanceurs d'Alerte (France)
- Ligue sénégalaise des droits de l'homme (Sénégal)
- RADDHO (Sénégal)
- Blueprint for Free Speech (Australie, Allemagne)
- Whistleblowing International Network (Royaume-Uni)
- Africtivistes (Sénégal)
- The Signals Network (États-Unis)
- Shadow World Investigations (Royaume Uni, Afrique du Sud)
- Finance Uncovered (Royaume-Uni)
- Public Eye (Suisse)
- Transparency International France (France)
- Syndicat National des Journalistes (SNJ) (France)
- Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) (Royaume-Uni)
- Resource Matters (Belgique)
- Congo Nouveau (République démocratique du Congo)
- UNIS, réseau panafricain de lutte contre la corruption (République démocratique du Congo)
- Observatoire d'Etudes et d'Appui à la Responsabilité Sociale et de l'Environnement (République démocratique du Congo)
- African Resources Watch (République démocratique du Congo)
- ARTICLE 19
- Lucha (République démocratique du Congo)
- FIDH (Fédération internationale pour les droits humains), dans le cadre de l’Observatoire pour la protection des défenseurs des droits de l’Homme
- OMCT (Organisation mondiale contre la torture), dans le cadre de l’Observatoire pour la protection des défenseurs des droits de l’Homme
- Filimbi (République démocratique du Congo)
- OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
- Centre for Free Expression (Canada)
- Union Syndicale Solidaires (France)
- Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)
- Oživení (Czech Republic)
- Sciences Citoyennes (France)
- Open Secrets (South Africa)
- African Centre for Media & Information Literacy (AFRICMIL)
- Transparency International
- Campax (Switzerland)
- Transparency International - Bulgaria (Bulgarie)
- Protect (United Kingdom)
- Ligue des droits de l’Homme (France)
- SpeakOut SpeakUp Ltd (United Kingdom)
- WBN - Whistleblower Netzwerk e.V. (Germany)
- Transparency International Rwanda
- Transparency International Initiative Madagascar
- Transparency Mauritius