By James M. Dorsey
A Singapore judge is scheduled to hear an appeal on October 18 by veteran journalist and scholar James M. Dorsey against an earlier court decision that ordered him to disclose sources in a case that is being closely watched by media organizations and freedom of the press groups.
Mr. Dorsey is appealing a decision earlier this month by an assistant registrar in favour of Singapore-based World Sports Group (WSG), which had petitioned the court to order the journalist to reveal his sources for his reporting on the group’s relationship with suspended and disgraced world soccer body FIFA vice president and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohammed Bin Hammam and its $1 billion marketing agreement with the Asian group.
WSG filed its petition in preparation of a potential defamation suit against Mr. Dorsey and his sources because of the journalist’s extensive reporting on an internal audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) of Mr. Bin Hammam’s management of AFC’s finances that asserted that he had used a sundry account as his personal account. The report raised questions about the valuation, the terms and the negotiation process of the WSG agreement and disclosed that a WSG shareholder had made $14 million in unexplained payments to Mr. Bin Hammam while the contract was being negotiated.
Neither WSG nor the shareholder, International Sports Events (ISE), an entity owned by Saudi billionaire Saleh Kamel have offered an explanation for the payments. The PwC report said that ISE had paid Mr. Bin Hammam $2 million while Al Baraka Investment and Development Co., another entity belonging to Mr. Kamel, paid the AFC official $12 million. “We understand that the Al Baraka Group may have (through the Arab Radio & Television Co., which it owns) been a 20% beneficial owner of the WSG group at that time,” the PwC report said.
Despite denying the allegations in the PwC report in an August 28 letter to Mr. Dorsey that threatened legal proceedings, WSG legal counsel Stephanie McManus conceded that “your ‘sources’ must have a very deep knowledge of the matters referred to in your article.”
Mr. Dorsey’s appeal is being heard at a time at which world soccer is being wracked by the worst corruption scandal in its history. Mr. Bin Hammam is the focus of at least three investigations. The Lausanne-based Court of Arbit,ration of Sport earlier this year overturned a FIFA decision banning Mr. Bin Hammam from involvement in soccer for life on the grounds that FIFA’s investigation had been shoddy, but stressed that its verdict was not a pronouncement of innocence of the Qatari national. The court urged FIFA to resubmit its case after properly putting it together.
Mr. Dorsey’s lawyers, N. Sreenivasan and Sujatha Selvakumar of Straits Law Practice LLC, said they were looking to reschedule the appeal “to allow us to canvass all of the issues before the judge.”
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 last 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.
Media organizations and freedom of the press groups are closely monitoring the case because it is likely to set a precedent for journalists operating in Singapore and elsewhere. “This is a case that is certain to influence how we operate in future,” said one media executive.
Prominent media lawyer Mark Stephens of London-based Finer Stephens Innocent told Media Lawyer Bulletin that “the decision of the Singapore court runs counter to Commonwealth and international jurisprudence on disclosure of sources and can only serve to chill the exposure of information coming freely into the public domain. It will be a very retrograde decision if it is allowed to stand."
Gianni Merlo, president of the international sports media association (AIPS), cautioned that WSG's effort to silence Mr. Dorsey could prove the first of many. "Every journalist has a duty to report the truth and the great concern about many sport organisations has been a lack of transparency about their business dealings. It is absolutely unacceptable that rich powerful companies should try to hide their business behind legal threats. Freedom of expression should be the right of every journalist in every country and the judicial authorities should ensure this for the sake of the health of their own societies,” Mr. Merlo said in an article on AIPS’ website.
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 lawyer Deborah Barker effectively confirmed Mr. Dorsey’s assertion by telling Agence France Presse that "we want information so we can determine what charges to make and against whom," a move designed to foreclose transparency and stifle rather than stimulate legitimate debate on an issue in which key players are suspected of corrupt practices.
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.