LONDON, September 13, 2012 - World football’s apparently never-ending Mohamed Bin Hammam saga has boiled over into a potentially toxic new arena, that of freedom of expression and/or freedom of the press.
This has been sparked by the decision of Singapore-based World Sports Group to sue a respected Asian commentator and analyst, James M. Dorsey, over articles concerning its financial and contractual ties with the Asian Football Confederation.
WSG’s initial action is not understood to question the accuracy of Dorsey’s reports and, indeed, suggests that they are too accurate and embarrassing for comfort.
The context for WSG’s application to the Singapore High Court stems from the ongoing wrangle between Bin Hammam, a 63-year-old Qatari multi-millionaire, and the international football authorities.
Bin Hammam was president of the AFC when he was suspended for life by world federation FIFA last year over election bribery allegations. He had the ban overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport but was then banned again over concerns about his management of AFC funds.
These were generated by an audit of AFC accounts by PricewaterhouseCoopers. This claimed Bin Hammam had made personal use of AFC funds and questioned – among other issues - the circumstances of the AFC’s $1bn marketing rights contract with WSG.
Dorsey has said that WSG wants the Singapore High Court to order him to reveal how he may have come into possession of internal AFC documents.
The existence of the audit and its contents have been reported extensively in the international media and Gianni Merlo, president of the international sports media association (AIPS), has raised concern that WSG’s bid to silence Dorsey may prove the first of many.
Merlo said: “Every journalist has a duty to report the truth and the great concern about many sport organizations has been a lack of transparency about their business dealings. It is absolutely unacceptable that rich powerful companies should try to hide their business behind legal threats.
“Freedom of expression should be the right of every journalist in every country and the judicial authorities should ensure this for the sake of the health of their own societies.”
WSG presents itself, on its website, as “Asia's leading sports marketing, media and event management company” and which has been “at the forefront of Asian sport since 1992.” It has regional offices in Beijing, Beirut, Delhi, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Seoul, Sydney and Tokyo and stated shareholders are Dentsu, Lagardere Unlimited and International Sports Events.
Dentsu once had a major stake in ISL, the long-bankrupt former marketing partner of both FIFA and the International Olympic Committee; Lagardere Unlimited is a subsidiary of the massive French media corporation.
Chairman and CEO of WSG is Seamus O’Brien, who is also chairman of New York Cosmos which has been revived as a member of the North American Soccer League.
Dorsey is a syndicated columnist, blogger and senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He has written extensively on, among other issues, the complexities of Asian sports business.
No response has been received to requests for comments from the AFC and from Cosmos.