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An Israeli diamond billionaire is facing defeat in an audacious attempt to use data protection laws to stifle one of his loudest critics.
Beny Steinmetz is engaged in a long-running legal battle with Global Witness, a campaign group that has raised “corruption concerns” about how BSG Resources, the mining arm of his family conglomerate, acquired rights to Africa’s largest iron ore project. Both Mr Steinmetz and BSG Resources deny wrongdoing in relation to the Simandou concession in Guinea.
Lawyers for Mr Steinmetz and three BSGR directors had tried to invoke the UK’s Data Protection Act to force Global Witness to reveal what data it held in relation to them and, if necessary, to destroy it. That move, which Global Witness said would compromise its confidential sources, was the first time privacy laws had been used in such a manner.
Last week, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) rejected Mr Steinmetz’s request, saying Global Witness’s activities were exempt from data protection requirements because they were “for the purposes of journalism”. Global Witness says on its website that it campaigns “to stop elites getting away with looting entire states . . . and for an end to the exploitation of our environment”.
The case has been keenly watched by lawyers at news organisations, who foresaw a significant impact on investigative journalism had the lawsuit succeeded. Leigh Baldwin, an investigative journalist at Global Witness, said the decision was “a victory for press freedom because it defines journalists by what they do, not whom they work for”.
A spokesman for the claimants said: “The ICO has not applied the law correctly and we will be asking the courts to review its decision.”
The claimants argued that Global Witness was part of a campaign by George Soros, whose Open Society Foundation is one of the non-government organisation’s big funders. The foundation contributed 25.1 per cent of Global Witness’s funding last year, less than the UK Department for International Development, which contributed 34 per cent, the organisation says.
The ICO’s decision is unlikely to end the controversy over the Simandou mining concession, which was initially granted to Rio Tinto in 1997. Half the rights were awarded to BSGR in 2008, just days before the death of Lansana Conté, Guinea’s authoritarian president. BSGR later sold a 51 per cent stake in its Guinean assets to the Brazilian mining group Vale in a $2.5bn deal, although only $500m of that was ever paid.
An inquiry by Guinea’s current government concluded in April that BSGR paid bribes to win the rights, which the company denies. The government subsequently cancelled BSGR’s rights and says it plans to put them out to tender.
BSGR is involved in legal action with Rio Tinto, Vale and the Guinean government. It recently sued Theresa May, the UK home secretary, and Britain’s Serious Fraud Office over their involvement in the Guinean authorities’ investigation.
Mr Steinmetz and the other claimants, Sandra Merloni-Horemans, Dag Cramer and David Clark, filed their data protection action at the High Court in London, which referred the salient issue to the ICO. In its letter the ICO said organisations may be eligible for an exemption in the Data Protection Act, “even if they are not professional journalists and the publication forms part of a wider campaign to promote a particular cause”.
It said it was “satisfied that Global Witness’s aim is to publish reports about the Simandou controversy and the personal data requested by the data subjects is being processed in connection with those reports”.
The ICO also reversed an earlier finding, from August 2013, that Global Witness had not complied with the Data Protection Act in relation to another request made by Mr Steinmetz.
Mr Steinmetz and the other claimants could ask the information rights tribunal to review the ICO’s decision.