Open letter to the European Commission: e-influence mercenaries operating in the EU undermine access to information
Together with 17 media outlets, journalists’ and press freedom organisations, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) today sent an open letter to Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, and Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton, to denounce the abusive practices of some reputation management companies operating in the European Union towards journalists and access to information.
Last February, the media NGO Forbidden Stories – which continues the work of assassinated journalists – published its latest investigation into disinformation mercenaries, “Story Killers”, and revealed the practices of one player in particular: Eliminalia, a Spanish reputation management company that offers to clean up clients’ reputation on the internet for a few thousand euros.
Based in Barcelona, Eliminalia has exploited EU privacy regulations for the past decade to deindex or delete negative content about their clients. Many of Eliminalia’s tactics are designed to intimidate journalists and media outlets into taking down their stories. Along with flooding the internet with altered stories and fake news favourable to their clients, Eliminalia has posed as EU officials, impersonated media outlets, filed illegitimate GDPR and DMCA takedown notices, and copied content from the legitimate news media.
In France, Avisa Partners, a French company specialising in “economic intelligence, global advocacy and cybersecurity” prosecuted for defamation three media outlets (Mediapart, Arrêt sur images and Reflets) in 2022. The lawsuits are a response to investigations published last year which revealed that Avisa Partners’ activities included lobbying, e-influence and disinformation, serving, among others, large companies and authoritarian states’ interests. Avisa Partners has also served formal notice on three other French media outlets, Next Inpact, l’ADN and Miroir du Nord, to remove certain references in journalistic investigations of the group’s activities. Mediapart reported that the same company also gathered intelligence – including personal activities, home addresses, relationships and sources of income – on Bulgarian investigative journalist Atanas Tchobanov. On June 1, the French media “L’Informé” reported that Avisa Partners – recently rebranded as ‘Forward’ – had been awarded a contract by the European Commission to promote the EU’s diplomatic strategy.
In the letter, the signatory organisations express concern about these events, given the current discussions on the European Media Freedom Act, the protection of public watchdogs from strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), as well as the increasing misuse of European laws as a justification for preventing the publication of public interest information.