November 14, 2022

RSF investigation: steel giant’s shadow and obliging British host behind Liberian news site’s closure

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has discovered how steel giant ArcelorMittal tracked down a UK-based website host to obtain the deletion of a Liberian news site’s investigation into the methods it used to acquire a mine in Liberia. But as a result, the overly obliging host blocked access to the entire website and left it blocked. The matter is now before the courts in Liberia.

Life at the Concord Times, one of Liberia’s oldest media outlets, was brought to an abrupt halt by a phone call on 1 October 2020. Francis Delamou, the person in charge of a local website host told Concord Times publisher and editor Lyndon Ponnie that his site had been shut down. The call was short. The website was accused of spreading “fake news” about Luxembourg-based steel and mining multinational ArcelorMittal. Ponnie received no written notification from the host about the rules he had supposedly violated. His site was simply blocked. And it has never been restored.

“With just a few clicks, a news site and all of its archives were deleted from the Internet on the sole basis of defamation allegations that have never been established, either by a court or by an independent administrative authority, and without the news site being given a chance to respond to the allegations. Justice was circumvented in this case, but those who helped bring this about will now have to explain themselves. We ask the Liberian courts to formally determine responsibilities for this summary and arbitrary blocking of a news site in which no right of defence was allowed.”

Ponnie knew he had been in ArcelorMittal’s crosshairs ever since he published a series of investigative articles about the steel giant two and a half months before the shut down. His investigation revealed that in 2006, under then President Charles Gyude Bryant and with the support of the then US ambassador, ArcelorMittal managed to obtain a mining concession that had initially been awarded to another company. On 22 July 2020, two days after the third and final part of this investigation was published, Schillings, a well-known international law firm engaged by ArcelorMittal, wrote to the Concord Times to request the withdrawal of the articles, which its client regarded as defamatory. Sure of his facts and his investigation, Ponnie did not comply.

Liberian justice short-circuited by compliant website host

Instead of taking the case to court, Schillings set about identifying the company responsible for hosting the Concord Times site and eventually arrived at a London-based company called LiquidNet. In a letter addressed to the British host on 17 September 2020, of which RSF has a copy, ArcelorMittal’s lawyers demanded the withdrawal of the articles on the grounds that their defamatory nature constituted a violation of the host’s service agreement.

Such an approach is quite unusual in cases of alleged defamation by means of the press, but it proved dramatically effective. LiquidNet not only complied by deleting the offending content but, less than two weeks after receiving the letter, it ordered the complete closure of the Concord Times site. In record time, a media outlet and all its archives had been removed from the Web. The journalist concerned was never questioned and no reference was made to a court. The news site’s investigation into ArcelorMittal was no longer accessible and the company had been spared a court case with an uncertain outcome.

In a letter to the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) a month later, in October 2020 – of which RSF has also obtained a copy – ArcelorMittal acknowledged asking the host to remove the allegedly defamatory articles but denied asking for the entire website to be suspended.

Since 15 September 2022, ArcelorMittal, its lawyers Schillings, the Liberian host Delamou, the British host LiquidNet, and Flower Technologies – another British host said to have acted as intermediary between Delamou and LiquidNet – are all accused of helping to make the website inaccessible in a complaint filed with the Sixth Judicial Circuit of the Civil Law Court in Montserrado County, the county in which the Liberian capital Monrovia is located.

Silent or evasive hosts

ArcelorMittal Liberia communication manager Winston P. Daryoue told RSF: “We are notified that Concord Times has filed a court action in relation to this matter. We therefore cannot comment further.”

Schillings told RSF that, after learning that the entire Concord Times site had been suspended, it asked LiquidNet to restore the site, removing only the offending articles. But, Schillings added, LiquidNet refused, saying it would not reinstate it “unless the owner removes the reported content themselves as they breached our Terms of Service with which they have agreed with upon signing.” An absurd response because the Concord Times no longer had access to the blocked site.

Neither Delamou (the Liberian host) nor his lawyer agreed to answer RSF’s questions about the circumstances and reasons for the Concord Times website’s closure. RSF has learned that, at the time, the Liberian host did contact Flower Technologies, a UK-based company whose services it uses to host all of its clients, to request an explanation for the closure. Ponnie’s lawsuit alleges that Flower Technologies played an intermediary role between LiquidNet and Delamou’s company in the website’s closure. When contacted by RSF, Flower Technologies referred us to LiquidNet.

The role played by this other UK-based host is unclear. While it has been established that LiquidNet ordered the closure of the Concord Times site after being contacted by ArcelorMittal’s lawyers, it has given no details about the reasons for its decision to suspend the entire news site.  When contacted by RSF, LiquidNet said it does not “judge the media” and conceded that “there is a court for that.” But it added: “We just determine what violates our Terms of Service that each customer agreed to upon signup.” LiquidNet provided no information on the process by which it determines whether or not content is defamatory.

When questioned separately by RSF, none of the three hosts clarified the nature of the links between them. Ponnie says he has only ever dealt with his local host, Delamou’s company, and has never had any contractual relationship with LiquidNet or Flower Technologies.

The Concord Times lawsuit in Liberia could be heard by the end of the year. Ponnie is seeking $12,000 in specific damages for the loss of advertising revenue and $10 million in general damages for the arbitrary, unilateral and forced closure of his site.

Original Story : RSF.org