Fake copyright complaints seek to remove minister and attorney reports

Articles about a powerful Equatorial Guinean official and a controversial Cameroonian lawyer-turned-lobbyist were attacked by unknown sources.

Copyright Bomb (Photo: Freesvg, License)False complaints of copyright infringement filed under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and sent to news outlets’ host web servers have caused articles to go offline for weeks. Complainants, who sometimes use fake identities, post and date fake articles to base their claims on.

At least five articles about Gabriel Mbaga Obiang Lima, the son of the President of Equatorial Guinea and his new Minister for Planning and Economic Diversification, and lawyer NJ Ayuk have been the target of such complaints. Three were added in the last month, all targeting articles on digital news website Diario Rombe co-published with OCCRP.

Obiang, who was previously Equatorial Guinea’s oil minister, worked professionally with Ayuk, founder of the Centurion Law Group and the African Energy Chamber.

A 2019 article in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian reporting that Ayuk was convicted of fraud in the US in 2007 and investigated for money laundering in Ghana in 2015 is one of the earliest examples of articles attacked using the DMCA tactic became.

The Mail & Guardian concluded that the complainant had used a false name and although the article was removed from the Linode newspaper’s server, it was eventually reinstated after a lengthy process. The Mail & Guardian called the copyright complaint a “censorship attack”.

Similarly, in November 2022, UK-based outlet Climate Home News received complaints about two stories about Ayuk’s short-lived partnership with two United Nations agencies, calling Ayuk a “cheater.” DMCA complaints caused server Amazon Web Services to issue an alert to Climate Home, which removed the items for weeks until it could resolve the issue.

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“We pride ourselves on our solid and hard-hitting reporting and have never been accused of plagiarism before,” Climate Home editor Megan Darby told OCCRP. “These false accusations look like a sneaky tactic to suppress independent journalism.”

Most recently, in January and February, two complaints were sent to Diario Rombe’s server Cloudfare and another to Google about stories about Obiang and Ayuk. Google preemptively removed one of the articles from its search results, but restored it after Diario Rombe filed a counter-notification. Amazon Web Services told reporters that after receiving a counter-notice, “the original plaintiff has 10 business days to file a counter-notification lawsuit,” otherwise the content must be restored.

At the time of publication, Cloudfare had not taken any action against the items.

It is unclear who is filing these complaints. OCCRP wrote to the complainants at the email addresses provided in the claims, but received no replies.

Ayuk has long been at odds with Diario Rombe and its editor Delfin Mocache Massoko and OCCRP. In a series of statements, Ayuk accused Massoko of extortion, bribery, fraud and racism. In December, a South African Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling that Ayuk’s comments were defamatory and ordered Ayuk to stop publishing them. An appeal upheld the defamation.

Massoko said the DMCA complaints were intended to “intimidate” independent journalists and could potentially “destroy many years of work.”

Ayuk and his company Centurion did not respond to reporters’ questions, but his legal representatives said the allegations against him were part of a “smear campaign” and that neither he nor his lawyers had “complied with wrongdoing”.

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Obiang did not respond to a request for comment.

OCCRP published a story earlier this month about a Spanish reputation management firm that used a similar technique of DMCA complaints to help clients, some of whom were criminals, remove negative stories about them.