Diamond billionaire Beny Steinmetz has failed in a bid to force Global Witness to hand over source material gathered in a corruption investigation after the UK’s data watchdog upheld statutory protections for public-interest journalism.
Steinmetz and three executives of his companies BSG Resources (BSGR) and Onyx Financial Advisors had filed claims under the Data Protection Act in the High Court, saying Global Witness’s reporting on a bribery scandal in West Africa infringed their privacy. The court passed the case to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which said in a 15 December letter that it is “satisfied that Global Witness is only processing the personal data requested … for the purposes of journalism”.
The lawsuit had threatened to arm corporations with a new weapon against investigative journalism. The ruling confirms that the Section 32 exemption for journalism in the Data Protection Act applies to anyone engaged in public-interest reporting, not just the conventional media.
“It is a victory for press freedom because it defines journalists by what they do, not whom they work for,” said Leigh Baldwin, an investigative journalist at Global Witness. “With non-traditional media playing a growing role in exposing corruption and human rights abuses, all journalists—and their sources—need to know they can rely on the same protections available to the mainstream press.”
Starting in November 2012, Global Witness has published a series of reports revealing how BSGR representatives set up offshore companies and promised millions of dollars in bribes to the wife of a Guinean president for her help to secure part of Simandou, thought to be the world’s largest untapped iron ore deposit. BSGR denies any corruption and says it has always acted “to the highest standards of corporate governance”.
In April this year, Guinea stripped BSGR of its concessions when an inquiry there ruled they were obtained corruptly. BSGR has disputed the findings and filed arbitration proceedings against Guinea. Criminal investigations are underway in Switzerland, the US and Guinea and last week it emerged that the UK’s Serious Fraud Office has ordered Steinmetz’s lawyers, Mishcon de Reya, to hand over documents relating to the Simandou deal. Onyx Financial Advisors and another law firm—Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom— received similar notices from the SFO. BSGR is contesting the SFO’s demands in the High Court.
With the Information Commissioner’s ruling, all journalists can continue to expose corruption without fear of the Data Protection Act being abused to shut down investigations and endanger sources.