Critics of UAE face new harassment

Two Americans who publicly criticised the exploitation of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates have found themselves under investigation by a private detective, the New York Times reports.

A private investigator called Loren Berger has been making inquiries about Andrew Ross, a professor at New York University (NYU), and Ariel Kaminer, a journalist who formerly worked for the New York Times – reportedly in the hope of finding people who would say negative things about them.

Earlier this month Ross was refused admission to the Emirates, where NYU has a campus. Ross, who has frequently criticised the university's arrangement with the UAE, had been planning to continue his research into labour conditions there.

Kaminer reported critically on UAE labour conditions in an article for the New York Times which was published last May.

Sean O'Driscoll, a freelance reporter who worked with Kaminer on the article, has since told the New York Times that he was offered "generous payments and immunity from prosecution if he would write favourably about the [UAE] government". He said he had refused and had not been permitted to re-enter the country after leaving for a short period, the paper added.

When contacted by the New York Times, Berger – the detective – said: "I can't tell you who I’m working for ... I don't know who the client is. It's not unusual." The NYT's report continues:

On January 29, Ms. Berger called Susan Fraiman, a professor of English at the University of Virginia. Professor Fraiman had written critically about some of Professor Ross’s academic work.

Ms Berger “said something like, ‘We’re looking for people to comment negatively,’ ” Professor Fraiman recalled in an interview. “I told her that I don’t know him personally. It seemed odd.”

She said that she had asked about the context of the investigation, and that Ms Berger had told her the president of NYU was under fire over the university’s involvement in the Emirates.

As Professor Fraiman recalled the conversation, “She said: ‘We’re investigating Andrew Ross for his comments about this and a particular journalist, Ariel Kaminer, who wrote about it. By the way, do you know her?’ ”

Both Professor Fraiman and Ms. Kaminer attended Princeton University, but at different times; both said they did not know each other. 

New York University has issued a statement saying it has no knowledge of Berger's investigation and no involvement in it. “It’s reprehensible and offensive on its face, and we call on whoever is involved to desist immediately.”

Asked by the New York Times if the UAE also condemns the surveillance or can cast any light on it, a spokeswoman for the Emirates embassy in Washington did not respond. The paper notes that the UAE government "has a record of striking back at those critical of migrant labour conditions there".

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been facing persistent online harassment as a result of articles I wrote about two strange "human rights" organisations which have links to the UAE.

One was the International Gulf Organization (IGO), based in Switzerland, which describes itself as a "non-governmental organisation dedicated to implementing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at regional and international levels". Last month IGO published a vitriolic attack on Human Rights Watch which it accused of "targeting" the UAE in its annual World Report.

The other organisation is the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD), based in Norway, which also has links to the UAE and promotes an unusually favourable view of human rights there.  

The GNRD file 
Read the full story here 

The harassment, which began in mid-February and was still continuing yesterday, has included repeated attempts to hack my Twitter and Facebook accounts, the creation of fake online profiles using my name or photograph, and the use of hundreds of fake Twitter accounts to post false and defamatory allegations about me.

These include claims that I am paid $50,000 a year by the government of Qatar and that I am evading tax.

A video posted anonymously on YouTube claims that I was in Yemen during the uprising against the Saleh regime (which I was not) and induced a Yemeni man to have sex with me by offering him money and a job and Qatar.

The latest effort is a blog called "Brian Whitaker owns fake companies", where an article purportedly written by someone called Adam L Conner claims:

"In 2007, Brian was made redundant from The Guardian because of his bias articles that favoured Qatar’s position on issues in the Middle East."

In fact, I left the Guardian in 2012 – five years later – for reasons that were unconnected with anything I had ever written about Qatar. As evidence of my supposed support for Qatar, Conner cites one of my blog posts which criticised Sheikha Moza, wife of the former emir. Bizarrely, Conner claims the article "had a clear intention of glamourising the Qatari royal family".

There is also a new Wikipedia Arabic page titled "Brian Whitaker, Reporting for Qatar", though as yet it has no content.

I made a formal complaint that Conner's blog posts were defamatory and received an email from Google saying that if I wanted them removed I would have to get a court order. The email continued:

"Blogger hosts third-party content. It is not a creator or mediator of that content. We encourage you to resolve any disputes directly with the individual who posted the content.

"If you cannot reach an agreement and choose to pursue legal action against the individual who posted the content, and that action results in a judicial determination that the material is illegal or should be removed, please send us the court order seeking removal. 

"In cases where the individual who posted the content is anonymous [as in this case], we may provide you with user information pursuant to a valid third party subpoena or other appropriate legal process against Google Inc."

The same fake Twitter accounts posting defamatory allegations about me are also being used to promote the work of GNRD and its founder-president, Loai Deeb, a lawyer of Palestinian origin who previously ran a fake university in Norway which closed down under threat of legal action by the Norwegian authorities.

Among other things, the fake accounts have been promoting a 27-minute speech about terrorism that Deeb gave last month. It has now been retweeted almost 25,000 times and a video of the speech itself, posted on YouTube, has supposedly been viewed an unbelievable 1,185,864 times.

Deeb appears to be an extraordinarily popular Twitter user, with almost 1.2 million followers. However, he has posted only 387 tweets – which means that on average each tweet must have attracted more than 3,000 new followers.

Some characteristics of the current online harassment reveal striking similarities to a campaign organised by supporters of the UAE in 2012 when I was still working at the Guardian. An opinion article by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood which appeared on the Guardian's website infuriated the UAE government, and this resulted in online abuse directed against me and the paper's Middle East editor, Ian Black. The UAE supporters wrongly assumed that we had been involved in publishing the article, though in fact neither of us knew anything about it before it appeared.

  • Note: All my blog posts on this topic are now compiled into a single file (here) where readers can see how the story developed.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 28 March 2015