The Publisher of the Concord Times Newspaper, www.concordtimes.net , Lyndon J. Ponnie has written the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) complaining the Indian giant steel company, Arcelormittal for allegedly ordering the website host based in the United Kingdom to unilaterally take his website down on allegation that www.concordtimes.net published fake news articles against one of its clients, Arcelormittal.
Below is the full text of Mr. Lyndon Ponnie’s complaint to the Press Union of Liberia dated on October 5, 2020 against Arcelormittal:
I am a Liberian Journalist based in Monrovia, Liberia, West Africa. I am the editor and manager of the online news outlet, Concordtimes.net, the online version of the Concord Times Newspaper, with its print version which was temporarily suspended for financial reasons.
The online version, concordtimes.net, has been operational for several years, until October 2, 2020 when the website host based in the United Kingdom (UK) unilaterally took it down on allegation Concord Times published fake news articles against one of their clients, Mittal Steel, which is mining iron ores in Liberia.
Concord Times had been subscribing with a local host, Dalemou, which has direct link with Flowers Technologies in the UK, hosting for all its Liberian clients. We pay to Delemou which in turn pays Flowers Technologies to host Concordtimes.net. Flowers Technologies, acted on request by Mittal Steel’s lawyers in the UK to take down the website which is currently my only livelihood with no reference to me.
Couple of months ago, we started the publication of news stories that revealed how the Iron Ores giant, Mittal Steel, during the interim Government of Chairman Charles Gyude Bryant, who handed power over to Nobel Laureate, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2006, used the assistance of a US Ambassador to seize control of an iron ores concession that was already won by another mining firm.
The publication was a result of Concord Times’ 16-year long investigation into the information that unearthed that officials from a subsidiary of Mittal Steels sought the assistance of United States Ambassador to Liberia at the time, Mr. John W. Blaney, to seize control of the Nimba Mountain from which Mittal is now mining ores.
At the time, according to documents in our possession, several companies including BHP Biliton, Rio Tinto/WATCO, Shandong International Trading Group and LNM Holdings, which is the very Mittal Steel, participated in a bidding process which was won by Global Infrastructure Holding Ltd (GIHL).
According to our investigation, which was backed by documents, the Liberian Government of Chairman Bryant was about to sign the mining development agreement (MDA) with GIHL, when a subsidiary of Mittal, ISPAT INLAND INC based in the US, wrote Ambassador Blaney, requesting his intervention to do everything within his powers to have Mittal Steel operate the Nimba Concession, the very concession already won by GIHL.
Based on the letter from ISPAT, the US Ambassador, according to documents in our possession, wrote several letters (two in our possession) to Chairman Bryant who was the head of state of Liberia.
Credible sources told us that besides the letters written to the Liberian leader at the time, the Ambassador allegedly made several phone calls that demanded Chairman Bryant overturn the GIHL bid. Even though, there was no complain from any of the companies including Mittal that took part in bidding process, the US Ambassador raised integrity issues and demanded Chairman Bryant ensure transparency in the process.
Reliable sources who worked in Chairman Bryant’s office at the time and were knowledgeable of the issue, told us that the Liberian leader got intimidated by what he considered as “verbal threat” from the US Ambassador to revert the bid in favor of Mittal Steel.
Our investigation found out that the alleged threat from the Ambassador forced the Liberian Head of State to demand a second bid which was subsequently awarded to Mittal as a means of appeasing the Ambassador.
Some senior cabinet members of the Bryant Government wrote a joint letter (in our possession) to the Liberian leader at the time, advising against falling prey to the Ambassador’s pressure, which they said would have undermined Liberia’s international image it was building after years of devastating civil war. Some of those who served on the bidding process at the time are still in government.
Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who later became President of Liberia, briefly served as Chairman of the Governance Commission at the time, and when she became President in 2006, she cancelled all concession agreements reached under Gyude Bryant, including Mittal, citing corruption as her reason. She only reconsidered her action after meeting with officials of Mittal. Months to the rectification of the Mittal Concession, all members of the over 100 members of the Liberian Legislature received pickup truck each, as gift from the Iron Ores giant. The action of Madam Sirleaf met serious rebuff from the Liberian society, who saw it as bribe intended to entice the lawmakers to speedily rectify the Mittal concession without proper scrutiny, but the Nobel Laureates saw nothing wrong with it. She argued that she made the request to Mittal for the cars and not the other way around as reported in local media.
We published the findings of our investigations, but not without contacting Mittal Steel in Monrovia. The management of Mittal requested a questionnaire, instead of a face-to-face interview on what we wanted to know from them on our investigation. We agreed and sent them a questionnaire on our findings and they replied in an email statement, which indicated that Mittal was legally operating in Liberia and that its concession agreement was rectified by the National Legislature. Our publication carried their side of the stories.
The management of Mittal in Liberia did not react to our several publications on the investigation. But weeks later, someone wrote from the UK claiming to be representing Mittal’s interest and demanded that we retract our publications that they considered as “fake news”, or they would go to court. Our lawyers told us not to reply to them since we did not know who they were. Our lawyers further advised that if Mittal wanted action against Concord Times, they would do so under Liberia’s jurisprudence. They however did not.
We did not hear anything again, until our local website host few days ago, called us to say that the host in the UK was taking the website down because we had published a “fake story” on Mittal. They actualized their on October 2, 2020.
Sir/Madam, the arbitrary action to abruptly block our website seriously hurts us. It is a threat to good journalism which we ascribe to. The shutting of the website automatically puts our staff out of job and undermines their earning power in wake of the already irking economic situation in our country.
We believe that the action of Mittal Steel was not necessarily meant to seek legal recourse, but to conceal with outright bullying the facts that we published about their misdeeds. This also poses security threat to my very life, since I am the custodian of the very revealing documents they don’t want to see published.
Mittal Steel, now Arcerlor Mittal, which is owned by an Indian Billionaire, is taking advantage of us because we are living in a very poor nation and lack resources to stand up to their bully. They are using their wealth and power to push us down so as not to make the world know of their misdeeds in Liberia.
Our institution does not have the financial muscles to travel outside of Liberia to fight Mittal and its corporate shenanigans.
In consideration of the foregoing, we humbly request your prompt intervention to get our website back online and thereby restore our rights as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international conventions and protocols.
Indeed, the shutting of our website also puts us in serious predicament with our advertisers and therefore asks that you intervene in whatever way possible to give us redress to have our website restored. There are a lot of other important news articles we have in the archive of the website that we could lose to Mittal’s aggression against us. So, please intervene.
Lyndon J. Ponnie