20 May 2021, London – Global Witness has uncovered links between a politically-connected PR firm in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and an online smear campaign launched following the publication of a joint report with the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF), Undermining Sanctions.
The July 2020 report presented evidence indicating controversial mining magnate Dan Gertler had used an international money laundering network to attempt to evade United States sanctions and continue doing business in DRC. The publication of the joint investigation was followed by a smear campaign against Global Witness, PPLAAF and media partners including Bloomberg, Le Monde and Haaretz, involving defamatory videos and other content posted on social media.
This smear campaign fed into a broader disinformation effort in DRC aimed at diverting attention from the report’s findings, including a spurious legal complaint which led to two Congolese whistleblowers being sentenced to death without their knowledge in September last year. The whistleblowers – both former employees of Afriland First Bank – have claimed asylum in Europe.
Now, new research by Global Witness links at least ten fake Twitter accounts associated with the smear campaign to CMCT TCG, a communications agency based in Kinshasa. Data obtained through open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques shows that some of the accounts – which purport to be ordinary Congolese citizens – were created within minutes of each other, using stock photographs and email addresses linked to the company.
Founded in 1994, CMCT has previously worked on election campaigns for Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Denis Sassou Nguesso in Congo-Brazzaville and DRC’s powerful ex-president Joseph Kabila. The firm has also produced work for Gécamines, the DRC state mining company which has been the focus of a number of Global Witness reports, including Undermining Sanctions.
Louis Goddard, Data Investigations Adviser at Global Witness, said:
“The links we have revealed between a PR firm with connections to DRC’s political and business elite and the smear campaign against Global Witness and our partners suggest an orchestrated attempt to silence us and to divert attention away from the allegations made in our investigation, Undermining Sanctions. Global Witness will not be deterred from pursuing investigative journalism in the public interest.
“The disinformation campaign also sends a worrying message to Congolese civil society and activists, who continue to take tremendous risks to fight corruption. The methods used by the PR firm may have been crude, but the effects – especially on the whistleblowers, Gradi Koko Lobanga and Navy Malela Mawani – have been very real.”Global Witness has found no evidence connecting the smear campaign to a particular CMCT client, or to any other company or individual. Aspects of the campaign and subsequent disinformation efforts may have been the work of actors other than CMCT.