The embattled Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz on Monday announced legal action against the transparency campaigners Global Witness in London, seeking to force the group to disclose purported “personal data” the group may have collected on him and three associates.
The lawsuit was the latest riposte by Steinmetz against allegations of corruption in Africa that have sparked U.S. and European criminal inquiries and seen an associate indicted in New York on charges of attempting to destroy evidence.
With a fortune initially amassed in the diamond trade, Steinmetz is by one estimate the richest in Israel. But he has seen his personal empire rocked this year by allegations of bribery in the Republic of Guinea, where authorities are threatening to strip him of multi-billion-dollar mineral rights.
The lawsuit’s announcement also came as a government committee in the Republic of Guinea met to hear accusations that in 2008, Steinmetz’s company, BSG Resources Ltd., acquired the rights to vast iron ore deposits through the lavish bribery of Guinean officials. In 2010, BSG sold a 51 percent stake in the venture to Vale S.A., the Brazilian mining giant.
Both Steinmetz and BSG Resources have strongly denied any wrongdoing. With the company’s relations with Conakry at a low ebb, BSG Resources did not send a representative to the hearing in the Guinean capital, though a representative from the joint venture, Vale-BSG Ltd., did attend. The process could see BSG Resources stripped of its contract rights.
Guinea’s Simandou mountain range holds one of the world’s largest untapped iron ore reserves, with a value estimated at as much as $50 billion, according to Bloomberg.
In a brief statement on Monday, Global Witness denounced the lawsuit as an attempt to muzzle an outspoken critic.
“Global Witness intends to robustly defend its position and regards the claim as an attempt to stifle journalism in the public interest,” the statement said, noting that it had “highlighted serious corruption concerns” in BSG Resource’s work for over a year.
“Rather than seeking to bully those raising legitimate concerns, BSGR should address these matters directly,” the organization’s statement said.
In legal papers filed Friday, Steinmetz and three BSG Resources board members — David Clark, Dag Cramer and Sandra Merloni-Horemans — claimed Global Witness possessed unspecified “personal data and information” concerning all four individuals.
The lawsuit reiterated claims often made by BSG Resources that billionaire philanthropist George Soros was financing a smear campaign against the company — something that Soros has denied.
A BSG Resources spokesman in London, who asked not to be identified, denied that the case had the potential to bar non-traditional journalists from investigating powerful interests.
“If Global Witness want to be treated like a journalistic organization then they have to behave like one, i.e. within the law,” the spokesman said. “It’s not something that’s going to set a kind of legal precedent.”
The case was brought under Britain’s Data Protection Act of 1998, which governs how information about individual people may be held and processed and is intended to protect the right to privacy. It gives individuals the right to access personal information gathered on them by companies, government agencies, organizations and others. But the law contains an exemption for journalists and news outlets.
In August, the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office recommended that Global Witness provide Steinmetz with the information he had sought, according to the lawsuit. However in September, Global Witness again refused, in part citing the legal exemption reserved for journalists.
Mark Watts, an attorney at Bristows LLP in London who specializes in data protection, said the exemption for journalistic uses could be interpreted as applying to organizations such as Global Witness.
“This is new territory in terms of the scope of the journalistic exemption,” said Watts. “Journalism is certainly changing.”
Watts noted that new forms of online journalism have blurred traditional definitions of journalism. “Nowhere does it say,” Watts added, that “if you are a pressure group like Global Witness you can’t rely on journalistic purposes.”
According to Adam Chapman, an attorney specializing in data protection at Kingsley Napley LLP in London, a decision against Global Witness could in theory have consequences for non-traditional journalism. “There is certainly a risk that it will impact on non-established media,” he wrote in an email.
Global Witness in August said that BSG Resources directors had created and controlled an offshore company that U.S. prosecutors believe is central to the alleged bribery in Guinea. BSG Resources refuted the claims, saying it had never controlled the company Pentler Holdings Ltd., which was incorporated in the British Virgin Islands.
Global Witness in April also published video which it claimed demonstrated links to Mamadie Touré, the fourth wife of the late Guinean dictator Lansana Conté who is now cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in its investigation of BSG Resources.