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08.12.2016

Football Leaks: Spanish judge requests to block revelations involving Real Madrid stars

by Ana Ribeiro

A Spanish judge is trying to get 12 European media outlets to stop publishing any information related to Football Leaks. The gigantic leak points to tax evasion and other alleged irregular financial practices and deals involving stars from Real Madrid, FC Chelsea and other European football clubs.

Foottball Leaks (montage: ECPMF)

The judge’s injunction from 2 December 2016 covers data related to clients of Senn Ferrero, the firm providing legal and fiscal counsel to those cited in the leaks. Julian Senn, partner at Senn Ferrero, once served as director general of Real Madrid and then turned to providing tax advice for football players in Spain, according to a Football Leaks-related article

Senn Ferrero – described on its website as “a new specialist boutique where you can shop for all the legal advice you need in the sports and entertainment sector” – is headquartered in Madrid. Daily newspaper El Mundo reported on 5 December that Judge Arturo Zamarriego acted in response to a request the firm submitted on 29 November to block the publication of the leaks. Senn Ferrero’s spokesperson told the ECPMF that they do not comment on the proceedings.

As quoted by the Madrid-based El Mundo, judge Zamarriego, who is based in the city, too, is targeting, in particular, both the print and digital publication of the clients’ confidential information “of personal, financial or fiscal character or of legal nature” – in particular that accessed by “the consortium of journalists European Investigative Collaborations [EIC]”.  The judge’s stated grounds, besides violation of privacy, are that protecting the documents’ publication could have amounted to abetting a crime, since there is an investigation ongoing into whether they were illegally obtained, as in a cyber-attack.

Referring to Zamarriego’s injunction as an attempted “gag order,” Agence France Press (AFP) reported that the judge is seeking “judicial cooperation to stop all 12 outlets… from publishing the information” across Europe.

Nani Jansen Reventlow, human rights and media lawyer and ECPMF Legal Affairs Committee member, comments:

This order is very problematic from a freedom of expression point of view. Tax avoidance is clearly a matter of public interest, so there is an overriding interest in making this information public. Footballers have been considered public figures in various courts, and therefore have a more limited expectation of privacy. Moreover, the order appears to be very far-ranging and not only covers financial data related to specific individuals. This captures too much speech, without taking into account the public interest in publishing the information. “

Ricardo Gutiérrez, Secretary General of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), stated: “Judge Zamarriego simply criminalises the exertion of press freedom and intimidates journalists through threatening them with jail sentences. This is intolerable and disgraceful.” And the Spanish branch of Reporters Without Borders has publicly condemned the move as censorship.

OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović expressed her concern about the judge’s position saying that “media must be free to publish investigative reports. The right to privacy or the fact that information might have been obtained illegally should not be used to block the publication of information of public interest such as tax avoidance.”

The Football Leaks

Colombian daily El Tiempo reported in February 2016 that Senn Ferrero was already calling back then for those responsible for Football Leaks – the blog which started collecting and publishing confidential data and communication on finance practices around the football scene already in 2015 – to “pay for their infractions”. The firm partner Javier Ferrero affirmed that they would face “the full weight of the law” as “delinquents”. The article stated that the affected football agents and clubs were researching every legal recourse possible to discover what companies or individuals were behind the leaks.

The 12 outlets in the Spanish judge’s injunction, including El Mundo itself, had begun publishing Football Leaks articles more systematically under the EIC’s umbrella earlier in December. According to the Football Leaks blog, this followed seven months of investigation by journalists using some of the data obtained by the same blog. This practice – making a big amount of data accessible to a consortium of investigative journalists to let them evaluate the documents to find the interesting stories in them – was also used for the Panama Papers.

After having already published similar stories in the beginning of 2015, the ongoing second phase of Football Leaks had been slated to play out over “the coming weeks”, with the high-profile outlets reporting on and publishing data from the leaked documents internationally under the EIC consortium’s Football Leaks project. Involving 18.6 million documents such as contracts, e-mails, Word and Excel files, as well as photos, it is potentially even bigger than the Panama Papers leak.

Says EIC:

The largest leak in the history of sports reveals murky financial transactions in the world of European professional football and exposes the tax tricks employed by some of the Continent's biggest stars.”

Led by Rafael Buschmann from German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, Football Leaks involves 60 journalists and a cross-section of European media platforms. Besides El Mundo and Der Spiegel, they are listed as Expresso (Portuguese weekly newspaper), Falter (Austrian weekly magazine), L’Espresso (Italian weekly magazine), Le Soir (Belgian daily newspaper), Mediapart(French online journal), NewsWeek (Serbian weekly magazine), NRC Handelsblad (Dutch daily newspaper), Politikien (Danish daily newspaper), The Sunday Times (British weekly newspaper), and TheBlackSea.eu (Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism).

Media outlets were reporting on some of the documents before now, a couple of which involved Real Madrid. The Spanish football club is once again a headliner in the more recent leaks: A story first published by Der Spiegel and republished by EIC partner L’Espresso on 2 December accuses Real Madrid players such as Cristiano Ronaldo of avoiding taxes on their earnings via offshore companies. The story has also been picked up by outlets outside the consortium, such as the BBC.

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom will closely follow the developments.

 

ECPMF's Michelle Trimborn contributed to this report.





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