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Global Witness has submitted its defence to a lawsuit filed by officials of Beny Steinmetz Group Resources in the UK’s High Court, arguing that the case amounts to an attempt to stifle reporting on a major corruption scandal and is an abuse of British law.
If their lawsuit were to be successful, the potential consequences for journalism in the UK would be alarming. The case risks setting a dangerous precedent that could allow companies faced with allegations of corruption to use the Data Protection Act to shut down public-interest reporting. It also risks compromising the confidentiality of sources.
“The case filed by BSGR officials is a threat to freedom of speech, as it risks stripping journalists and NGOs of vital safeguards aimed at protecting sources and reporting freely on matters of public interest,” said Simon Taylor, one of the founders of Global Witness.
On 16 December four officials of BSGR filed a case in the High Court, claiming that their privacy rights had been breached by Global Witness’s investigative reporting on a multi-billion-dollar mining scandal in Guinea, one of Africa’s poorest nations. Among these officials was Beny Steinmetz himself, one of the world’s biggest diamond traders.
Over the past year, Global Witness has revealed compelling evidence that other BSGR officials signed corrupt contracts with the wife of Guinea’s ex-president, offering her millions of dollars for help in obtaining mining rights. (See Global Witness’ previous statements on these issues here for the full context: http://www.globalwitness.org/library/damning-video-and-contracts-show-bsgr-was-lying-guinea-mining-scandal and here: http://www.globalwitness.org/library/new-evidence-ties-bsgr-company-behind-guinea-mine-bribery). BSGR is now under investigation in several countries, including the United States, which is examining possible breaches of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. One of the company’s former representatives, Frederic Cilins, is to stand trial in New York later this year on charges of obstructing the inquiry. BSGR and Cilins have argued that the contracts are fake, with BSGR stating that that the corruption allegations are "entirely baseless".
In their UK lawsuit, the four BSGR officials have demanded that Global Witness hand over documents that it holds mentioning them or the company, including information on sources. They argue that such documents should be considered as holding “personal data” under the Data Protection Act.
The Act makes a clear exception for public-interest journalism, in recognition of the fundamental right to freedom of speech, yet BSGR argues that Global Witness should not benefit from this exception.
Instead, the officials—represented by law firm Mishcon de Reya—have sought an order preventing Global Witness from “processing” all such data. If granted, it would prevent Global Witness from writing anything about BSGR and its involvement in one of the biggest ever mining scandals.
“They are effectively turning the Data Protection Act on its head,” said Taylor. “The Act was passed with the aim of protecting individuals against the prying state and corporations – not to chill discussion of matters of international importance.”
Note to editors:
1. The Data Protection Act is clear in its provision for public-interest reporting. Section 32 states:
Journalism, literature and art.
(1)Personal data which are processed only for the special purposes are exempt from any provision to which this subsection relates if—
(a)the processing is undertaken with a view to the publication by any person of any journalistic, literary or artistic material,
(b)the data controller reasonably believes that, having regard in particular to the special importance of the public interest in freedom of expression, publication would be in the public interest, an
(c)the data controller reasonably believes that, in all the circumstances, compliance with that provision is incompatible with the special purposes.
The full text of the Act is available here: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1998/29/contents
2. The Wall Street Journal has reported that jury selection in the trial of former BSGR adviser Frederic Cilins is due to begin on 31 March, to be followed by a trial expected to last for one or two weeks. See also the Wall Street Journal piece of 21 January about Switzerland's related inquiry.
3. To read Global Witness's reports on BSGR's Simandou deal go to: http://www.globalwitness.org/library/bsgr’s-guinea-deal .
Daniel Balint-Kurti on +44 (0)207 492 5872 or +44 (0)7192 517 146 or [email protected]
For comment on legal background & context:
Tim Bignell, Partner, HowardKennedyFSI
T: +44 (0)20 7344 5641
Mark Stephens, Partner, HowardKennedyFSI
T: +44 (0)20 7344 7650
T: +44 (0)20 7344 7661