By James M. Dorsey
Singapore-based World Sports Group (WSG) has started legal proceedings against veteran journalist and soccer scholar James M. Dorsey in a bid to silence sources and squash reporting about its relationship with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and disgraced FIFA vice president and AFC president Mohammed Bin Hammam, who is at the center of the worst corruption scandal in soccer history.
WSG has asked the Singapore High Court to instruct Mr. Dorsey to reveal how he may have come into possession of internal AFC documents, including an audit that puts on record unexplained payments of $14 million to Mr. Bin Hammam by one of the company’s shareholders in the walk-up to the signing of its controversial $1 billion marketing rights contract with the AFC. The report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) also raises questions about how WSG was chosen, the terms of the contract and how it was negotiated.
A syndicated columnist, blogger and senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Mr. Dorsey reported extensively on the PwC report as well as the web of scandals that have wracked world soccer body FIFA and the AFC at which Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari national, is at the core. His reports have been posted on social media including Twitter, which has been cited in WSG’s petition to the court.
WSG initiated the legal proceedings after Mr. Dorsey first disclosed details of the PwC report, including the payments to Mr. Bin Hammam by one of its shareholders, International Sports Events (ISE) that is believed to be owned by Saudi billionaire Saleh Kamel as well as another entity associated with the businessman; quoted sources close to the AFC as questioning whether the terms of the WSG contract were in the AFC’s interest; and revealed that Malaysian police had opened an investigation into the alleged theft of documents related to one of the payments by an AFC official on behalf of Mr. Bin Hammam. France’s Lagedere United, the country’s largest media and sports marketing company in which Qatar Holding has a 10 per cent stake, and Dentsu, a Japanese advertising and marketing agency, are also shareholders of WSG.
WSG Chairman and CEO Seamus O’Brien who doubles as head of the New York Cosmos took control last year of the US club last year in a partnership with Sela Sport, a Saudi company represented by Hussein Mohsin Al Harthy, according to media reports as well as well-placed sources who believe that Mr. Al-Harthy is Mr. Kamel’s brother-in-law. The 2012 Directory of Islamic Financial Institutions published by Routledge lists Mr. Al Harthy, who sits on the board of a number of companies of Mr. Kamel’s Dallah Al Baraka group, as a founder, together with the Saudi billionaire, of the Al Baraka Islamic Investment Bank BSC in Bahrain.
The legal proceedings initiated by WSG under Singapore law constitute a pre-trial action that would allow the company to serve Mr. Dorsey with interrogatory questions that he would be obliged to answer. A hearing in the High Court has been set for September 12. WSG, which has threatened other journalists with defamation proceedings, is asking the court to order Mr. Dorsey to answer six questions that would force him to reveal whether and what internal AFC documents he may have in his possession and who his sources are. Responses to the questions would allow WSG to initiate legal action against Mr. Dorsey and his sources on charges of breach of confidentiality and defamation.
In an August 28 letter to Mr. Dorsey, WSG Group Legal Counsel Stephanie McManus implicitly admitted the accuracy of Mr. Dorsey’s reporting by acknowledging that his sources “must have a very deep knowledge of the matters referred to in your Article.” Ms. McManus went on to first respond to the allegations against WSG in the PwC report and then demand that Mr. Dorsey take WSG-related articles off his blog and reveal his sources. An August 30 letter by WSG’s lawyers, Deborah Barker and Ushan Premaratne of KhattarWong repeated Ms. Mc Manus’ demands in addition to demanding an apology by Mr. Dorsey. The letter asserted that Mr. Dorsey had been an accessory to breach of confidentiality. It alleged that “your distorted and unsubstantiated statements present your viewers with a biased view and indicate malice on your part.”
Mr. Dorsey has rejected WSG's demands and will vigorously defend himself against the claim. He is represented by N. Sreenivasan of Straits Law.
Mr. Bin Hammam has been suspended for more than a year as FIFA vice president and AFC president initially on charges of having sought to bribe Caribbean soccer officials to support his failed effort last year to challenge Sepp Blatter in elections for the FIFA presidency. The PwC report constituted the basis on which
Mr. Bin Hammam’s suspension was extended in July after the Court of Arbitration of Sport overturned a FIFA ruling that banned Mr. Bin Hammam for life from involvement in professional soccer but suggested that its decision was not a declaration of the Qatari’s innocence. The PwC report suggested that Mr. Bin Hammam’s management of AFC affairs may have involved cases of money laundering, tax invasion, bribery and busting of US sanctions against Iran and North Korea.
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.