By James M. Dorsey
A Singapore court has ordered veteran journalist and scholar JMD to reveal his sources for his reporting on an audit of suspended world soccer body FIFA vice president and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohammed Bin Hammam's management of AFC's finances and agreement with a Singapore-based company on the group's marketing rights.
The court accepted a demand by World Sports Group (WSG) to instruct the journalist and scholar to reveal his sources on the grounds that the audit was confidential and that the sources had defamed the company.
The court in a four-hour hearing however stayed its decision pending an appeal that Mr. Dorsey's lawyers, N. Sreenivasan and Sujatha Selvakumar of Straits Law Practice LLC, will submit in the coming days.
Mr. Dorsey's lawyers argued that he was not a party to any confidentiality agreement and that if WSG had an issue it should take it up with the AFC to whom the original report was addressed. The lawyers noted further that the code of ethics of journalists in Singapore as well as in numerous Asian countries, including Malaysia and Hong Kong shield journalists from revealing sources.
In an affidavit to the court, Mr. Dorsey asserted that he believed that WSG’s legal action was an attempt at “indirectly discovering who within the AFC may have breached their confidentiality and also suppress any well meaning or good intended person from coming forward in the future and is seeking to punitively punish those who may have spoken against them.”
WSG has said it applied to the High Court to force Mr. Dorsey to reveal his sources with the intention of launching possible defamation or breach of confidence proceedings. "We want information so we can determine what charges to make and against whom," WSG lawyer Deborah Barker told Agence France Presse.
The internal AFC audit conducted by PriceWaterhouse Coopers (PwC) charged that Mr. Bin Hammam had used an AFC sundry account as his personal account, questioned the terms and negotiation procedure of a $1 billion marketing rights agreement between WSG and the AFC and raised questions of $14 million in payments by a WSG shareholder to Mr. Bin Hammam prior to the signing of the agreement.
In its report, PwC said that “it is highly unusual for funds (especially in the amounts detailed here) that appear to be for the benefit of Mr Hammam personally, to be deposited to an organization’s bank account. In view of the recent allegations that have surrounded Mr Hammam, it is our view that there is significant risk that…the AFC may have been used as a vehicle to launder funds and that the funds have been credited to the former President for an improper purpose (Money Laundering risk)” or that “the AFC may have been used as a vehicle to launder the receipt and payment of bribes.”
Malaysian police earlier this month arrested the husband of an associate of Mr. Bin Hammam on suspicion of helping steal documents related to one of the payments to Mr. Bin Hammam from AFC’s head office in Kuala Lumpur.
WSG has refused to comment on the PwC report and has threatened reporters, including the author of this
report, with defamation proceedings. However in an August 28, 2012 letter to this reporter WSG Group Legal Advisor Stephanie McManus asserted that “PWC are incorrect and misconceived in suggesting that the MRA was undervalued. They have neither considered the terms of the contract correctly, the market, nor the circumstances in which it was negotiated,” Ms. McManus wrote.
The master rights agreement is controversial both because of the unexplained payments as well as assertions by sources close to the AFC that the soccer group, in line with common practice among international sport associations, should have concluded a service provider rather than a master rights agreement with WSG. The sources said such an agreement would have given the AFC greater control of its rights and how they are exploited and enabled it to better supervise the quality of services provided by WSG.
In a July 13 letter to lawyers Shearn Delamore & Co, PWC explicitly leaves open the possibility that the AFC might share the report with third parties. For that reason, the terms of the report contain a clause that shields PwC from any liability should the AFC choose to share the report with non-AFC institutions or persons.
The letter stipulates that the report is intended “solely for the internal use and benefit of Shearn Delamore & Co. and the Asian Football Confederation,” and that third parties are not authorised to have access to the report. The letter however goes on to say that should third parties gain access they agree that the report was compiled in accordance with instructions by the law firm and the AFC and that PwC is not liable for any consequences stemming from the fact that third parties had been granted access.
Lawyers for FIFA earlier this year sought unsuccessfully to introduce the report in Mr. Bin Hammam's appeal proceedings in the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration of Sport against the world soccer body's banning for life of the Qatari national from involvement on soccer on charges of bribery.
Both FIFA and the AFC have suspended M. Bin Hammam on the basis of the report pending further investigation of the allegations in the PwC report and separate charges that he last year sought to bribe Caribbean soccer officials. Mr. Bin Hammam has denied all allegations and charges.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.