Gabriel Mbaga Obiang Lima, the subject of the articles that have been under attack. (Photo: Reuters/Alamy Photo Stock)Gabriel Mbaga Obiang Lima, the subject of the articles that have been under attack. (Photo: Reuters/Alamy Photo Stock)

In a concerning revelation, a recent report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) has exposed a troubling trend of powerful oil lobbyists exploiting US copyright law to temporarily remove critical articles from the public domain. Journalists, including the respected South African newspaper Mail & Guardian, have fallen victim to false copyright claims, hindering their ability to shed light on the actions of influential figures within the oil industry. The abuse of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has raised serious concerns about the suppression of free speech and the protection of journalistic integrity.

According to the OCCRP report, at least five articles critical of oil lobbyists have been subjected to fake copyright claims. The claims, made by unknown individuals under the guise of the DMCA, falsely assert ownership of the articles in question. This alarming tactic effectively triggers a formal legal process, resulting in the temporary removal of the content from the web while the genuine authors are forced to prove their credentials. Such abuse of the DMCA process has far-reaching implications for press freedom and the public’s right to access information.

A Case in Point: Diario Rombe’s Struggle

One recent example highlighted in the report is the case of Diario Rombe, an investigative news outlet focused on Equatorial Guinea. The publication faced three separate false copyright claims, all related to articles critical of Gabriel Mbaga Obiang Lima, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s president, and his close associate, Cameroonian businessman and lawyer NJ Ayuk. The false claims effectively stifled Diario Rombe’s ability to shed light on pertinent issues and inhibited their role as an independent investigative entity.

The Dark Side of the DMCA Process

The DMCA was enacted to safeguard copyright holders, but its exploitation by unknown parties raises concerns about its unintended consequences. The OCCRP report reveals that “unknown parties” often employ backdated fake articles to target critical news reports. This manipulation of the DMCA process not only disrupts the dissemination of important information but also poses a challenge for journalists seeking accountability from powerful individuals within the oil industry.

The Targeted Figures: NJ Ayuk and Gabriel Mbaga Obiang Lima

NJ Ayuk, also known as Njock Ayuk Eyong, is the CEO of African law firm Centurion Law Group and the founder of the African Energy Chamber (AEC). Known for his outspoken advocacy of the oil industry in Africa, Ayuk maintains a close relationship with Gabriel Mbaga Obiang Lima. Lima, until a recent cabinet reshuffle, served as Equatorial Guinea’s Minister of Mines and Hydrocarbons. The critical articles that faced fake copyright claims were aimed at shedding light on the activities and potential controversies surrounding these influential figures.

While the OCCRP report has shed light on the abuse of copyright law, the authors are still investigating to determine the identity of those behind the attacks. It is crucial to identify and hold accountable those responsible for manipulating the DMCA process for their own vested interests. Journalists and media organizations must be protected from such targeted attacks to ensure the freedom of the press and the public’s right to access accurate and unbiased information.

The exploitation of US copyright law to silence critical journalism represents a grave threat to press freedom and the integrity of independent reporting. It is imperative that regulatory bodies, server providers, and lawmakers work together to address this abuse promptly. Safeguards and stricter regulations should be implemented to prevent malicious actors from exploiting the DMCA process and undermining the crucial role journalists play in upholding transparency and accountability.

As per BBC Treanding Report

Mr Ayuk has issued press releases from Centurion Law Group and the AEC which publicly attack journalists criticising his oil lobbying activities and questioning his close relationship with Mr Obiang Lima.

The first known false copyright claim to target reports on Mr Ayuk was made in 2019, following the publication of an article in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian (M&G) titled Fraudster named in SA’s oil deal.

The story examined Mr Ayuk’s involvement in an oil deal between South Africa and South Sudan worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It revealed that Mr Ayuk was convicted of fraud in the US in 2007 after pleading guilty to illegally using the stationery and signature stamp of a congressman to obtain visas for fellow Cameroonians.

After the story was published, the M&G’s web server Linode was contacted by an “Ian Simpson”, claiming he was the original author of the piece. Linode took down the news outlet’s entire website for a morning in response to the complaint.

M&G investigated and found that the US address given did not exist and that there were no other traces online of this alleged author. M&G concluded that “Simpson” and his article were fakes but Linode forced the newspaper to take down its article about Mr Ayuk before it would restore the rest of the M&G website.

Writing about the takedown, the M&G called this a “censorship attack”.

Last November during the UN’s climate summit COP27, UK-based Climate Home News published an article about Mr Ayuk launching a partnership with two UN agencies called UN gives platform to convicted fraudster lobbying for African gas.

Picture of two articles side by side with the same headline and picture
Image caption, A copy of Climate Home News’ article appeared on Tumblr. Mr Ayuk denies corruption allegations.

The article highlighted the role of the African Energy Chamber in the UN’s flagship Team Energy Africa private investments initiative and referenced Mr Ayuk’s US fraud conviction.

The UN cancelled the initiative following the publication.

Two weeks later, Climate Home News’ server AWS received copyright claims on both articles from “Thomas L Pierce” and “Marcus A Webre”. The OCCRP was unable to trace the complainants, and emails to their provided addresses went unanswered.

AWS told Climate Home that it might have to take action against Climate Home News unless it could confirm that the matter had been successfully addressed.

Climate Home editor Megan Darby removed the articles while addressing the false claims with AWS. It took several weeks before Climate Home was able to reinstate the articles.

Ms Darby told the OCCRP: “These bogus allegations look like a devious tactic to suppress independent journalism.”

Earlier this year, unknown parties filed three complaints against independent investigative outlet Diario Rombe over articles authored by them. Two were with its server Cloudflare and one with Google. They targeted two 2021 articles published in collaboration with OCCRP which were critical of Mr Ayuk and his relationship with Mr Obiang Lima.

Screen shot of an article showing Diario Rombe story with "Original (Translated)" stamp
Image caption, The original article was in Spanish
Screen shot of an article showing identical story to the one above with "Fake (Translated)" stamp

All three complaints appear to have originated from South Africa. The OCCRP said that it could not establish whether the purported claimants “Lavino Siqueira” and “Mark E Bailey” were real people, and again, emails to their addresses went unanswered.

Google removed the second article from its search results. It reinstated the piece only after Diario Rombe filed a so-called “counter-notice”.

Diario Rombe editor Delfin Mocache Massoko said: “These copyright complaints for a small outlet without funds like Diario Rombe do huge damage to our work. I believe that the author has a single mission, to eliminate all negative information about Mr Ayuk and Lima from the internet.”

When contacted by the BBC, Mr Ayuk strongly denied corruption allegations and said he, the AEC and Centurion Law Group denied the allegations made by the OCCRP including in relation to fake copyright claims.

Gabriel Mgeba Obiang Lima did not respond to requests for comment at time of publication.

The OCCRP contacted AWS, Google and Cloudflare for comment on the bogus copyright complaints, but they did not respond.