How false copyright complaints muzzle journalists

Journalists have been forced to temporarily remove articles critical of powerful oil lobbyists over the exploitation of US copyright law, according to a new report.

At least five such articles have been the subject of bogus copyright claims, including one from the respected South African newspaper Mail & Guardian, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

The claims – falsely claiming ownership of the stories – were made by mysterious individuals under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a law designed to protect copyright holders.

Just last month, three separate bogus copyright claims were filed against Diario Rombe, an investigative journalism centered on Equatorial Guinea.

The attacked articles concern the son of the President of Equatorial Guinea, Gabriel Mbaga Obiang Lima, and his close associate, Cameroonian businessman and lawyer NJ Ayuk.

The OCCRP claimed in a report published Wednesday that the DMCA process was often abused by “unknown parties” who create falsified fake articles to target critical news stories.

Under U.S. law, any online author who claims his or her content has been stolen can seek to have what they believe is infringing material removed by initiating a formal legal process through web servers hosting the material.

The process differs depending on the server provider, but it could mean content being removed from the internet for weeks while the real author proves their credentials.

The OCCRP has yet to discover who is behind the attacks, but all stories have been critical of NJ Ayuk.

NJ Ayuk, also known as Njock Ayuk Eyong, is the CEO of the African law firm Centurion Law Group and the founder of the African Energy Chamber (AEC). He is also an outspoken advocate for the oil industry in Africa.

Mr. Ayuk has a close relationship with the other subject of two of the stories, Gabriel Mbaga Obiang Lima. Mr. Obiang Lima was Minister of Mines and Hydrocarbons in Equatorial Guinea until a recent cabinet change.

Mr. Ayuk has issued press releases from the Centurion Law Group and the AEC publicly attacking journalists who criticize his oil lobbying activities and question his close relationship with Mr. Obiang Lima.

The first known false copyright claim to target reports on Mr Ayuk was made in 2019, following the publication of an article in the South African Mail & Guardian (M&G) titled Fraudster named in SA’s oil deal.

The story was about Mr Ayuk’s involvement in an oil deal between South Africa and South Sudan worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It revealed that Mr Ayuk was convicted of fraud in the US in 2007 after pleading guilty to illegally using a congressman’s stationery and signature stamp to obtain visas for fellow Cameroonians.

After the story was published, M&G’s web server Linode was contacted by an “Ian Simpson”, who claimed to be the original author of the piece. Linode, in response to the complaint, took the entire news center website offline for a morning.

M&G investigated and found that the US address provided did not exist and that there were no other traces online of this alleged author. M&G concluded that “Simpson” and his article were fake, but Linode forced the newspaper to remove the article about Mr Ayuk before reinstating the rest of the M&G website.

The M&G wrote about the removal, calling it a “censorship attack”.

Last November, during the UN climate summit COP27, the UK-based Climate Home News published an article about Mr Ayuk starting a partnership with two UN agencies called UN gives platform to convicted fraudsters lobbying for African gas.

A copy of the Climate Home News article appeared on Tumblr. Ayuk denies allegations of corruption.

The article highlighted the role of the African Office of Energy in the UN flagship Team Energy Africa for private investment and referred to Mr Ayuk’s conviction for fraud in the US.

The UN canceled the initiative after its publication.

Two weeks later, Climate Home News’ server, AWS, received copyright claims on both “Thomas L Pierce” and “Marcus A Webre” articles. The OCCRP was unable to trace the complainants and emails sent to their specified addresses went unanswered.

AWS told Climate Home it may have to take action against Climate Home News unless it can confirm the case has been successfully addressed.

Climate Home editor Megan Darby removed the articles as she addressed the false claims with AWS. It took several weeks for Climate Home to recover the articles.

Ms Darby told the OCCRP: “These false accusations look like a devious tactic to suppress independent journalism.”

Earlier this year, unknown parties filed three complaints against the independent research agency Diario Rombe about articles written by them. Two were with its server Cloudflare and one with Google. They targeted two 2021 articles published in collaboration with OCCRP that were critical of Mr. Ayuk and his relationship with Mr. Obiang Lima.

Screenshot of an article featuring Diario Rombe's story with

The original article was in Spanish

Screenshot of an article with the same story as above with

Screenshot of an article with an identical story as above with a “Fake (Translated)” stamp

All three complaints appear to have come from South Africa. The OCCRP said it was unable to determine whether the alleged plaintiffs “Lavino Siqueira” and “Mark E Bailey” were real people, and again, emails sent to their addresses went unanswered.

Google removed the second article from its search results. It only reinstated the piece after Diario Rombe submitted a so-called “counter-message”.

Diario Rombe editor Delfin Mocache Massoko said: “These copyright complaints for a small cashless outlet like Diario Rombe are doing enormous damage to our work. I believe the author has only one mission: to remove all negative information about Mr. Ayuk and Lima from the web.”

When contacted by the BBC, Mr Ayuk strongly denied the corruption allegations, saying that he, the AEC and Centurion Law Group denied the allegations made by the OCCRP, including regarding false copyright claims.

Gabriel Mgeba Obiang Lima did not respond to requests for comment at time of publication.

The OCCRP contacted AWS, Google, and Cloudflare for comment on the bogus copyright complaints, but they did not respond.

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