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Abu Dhabi Secrets: Journalist speaks out on being harassed after smear campaign

French journalist Rokhaya Diallo says she was shocked to find herself spied on and 'affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood'
Rokhaya Diallo says that the smear campaign has had a negative impact on her work and made her prone to harassment (Screengrab/Twitter)

A France-based journalist says she has been "exposed to violence" as a result of being targeted by a smear campaign by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that branded her a Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser, leaving her mental health at risk.
Earlier this month, investigations by a French outlet revealed that the UAE was involved in a smear campaign that targeted more than 1,000 people and hundreds of organisations in Europe. 

Mediapart obtained documents that showed that the UAE hired Alp Services, a Geneva-based private intelligence firm, to obtain information on people from 18 European countries between 2017 and 2020. 

What followed was a smear campaign that accused those named of having links to or affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been branded as a terrorist organisation by the UAE. 

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The Emirati embassy in Paris did not respond to Mediapart's request for comment. The UAE has previously denied being involved in similar campaigns. 

Among those targeted was Rokhaya Diallo, a prominent journalist who has campaigned on issues around women's rights, Islamophobia and anti-Black racism in France.

"I was shocked. I felt like this was very unfair," Diallo told Middle East Eye.

"I feel like the people who were targeted are the same ones who would be targeted by far-right groups," she said, adding that the list of people who had their information sent to the UAE government "didn't make sense".

Diallo fears that being targeted by the UAE and being spied on will have more severe consequences for her work. 

"I am active on feminism and LGBTQ rights, so it doesn't feel accurate to associate me with the Muslim Brotherhood, but this will give grounds to people who are already against me and say that I am too soft on extremism and [are against me] for my support of Muslim rights."

Information sent to Emirati intelligence services included phone numbers and personal details. Alp Services said this accusation was based on "stolen data" and claimed the line of questioning from journalists suggested the documents were "partly falsified".

Once the information was sent to Emirati intelligence services, agents were able to target the individuals through press campaigns, forums published about them, the creation of fake profiles and the modification of Wikipedia pages.

In some cases, work was done to ensure that the bank accounts of targeted individuals and organisations were closed. 

The association with the Muslim Brotherhood has had far-reaching consequences on the victims of the campaign, in some cases affecting their careers.

Victims of the files have been left shocked, angry and paranoid.

Some have been forced to flee their home country, while others have lost their businesses and suffered huge financial losses as well as reputational damage. 

Mental health toll 

Diallo said she was not expecting to see herself included on the list of people targeted and that she no longer feels secure.

Associating her with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group she has distanced herself from, has had a huge effect on her work and mental health. 

"Of course it has had a very negative impact," she said.

"There is so much Islamophobia in the press, and being one of the very few Muslims who are visible in the public sphere I was concerned about how this could discredit my work."

Diallo also said that, following her association with the Muslim Brotherhood, she has seen an uptick in harassment, which she has found alarming.

'I am constantly getting threats, from death to rape, and I am quite concerned about how this will amplify the threats I already get'

- Rokhaya Diallo, journalist

"As a black Muslim woman, especially in France, this has exposed me to violence. I am constantly getting threats, from death to rape, and I am quite concerned about how this will amplify the threats I already get."

The journalist and author has also had to rethink what she posts online as well as her social media presence, and said that for some time she did not want to be in the public eye despite this being part of her livelihood. 

Diallo has since contacted her lawyer and sought support, but is still dealing with the backlash and harassment from being at the receiving end of a hateful online campaign. 

"I'm worried because I've been targeted before with violent threats, which has added to the suspicion about me, and especially the suspicion against Muslims."

Diallo has also raised concerns over being spied on, and the sensitive information she often works with as a journalist being passed on to the UAE government. 

A failed attempt?

Many people who were targeted in the campaign have questioned the process and selection of people targeted. 

"I don't think the campaign worked. They just copied and pasted a list of people who are targeted by the far right," Diallo said. 

Others who have been targeted in the campaign include Heshmat Khalifa, a member of Islamic Relief Worldwide's board of trustees. He was linked to terrorism following his work with an Egyptian humanitarian organisation in Bosnia during the 1990s.

Alp Services also trawled through Khalifa's social media history and accused him of posting antisemitic posts in the wake of Israel's war on Gaza in 2014, which forced him to resign as a trustee.
In Belgium, political scientist Fouad Gandoul, who was also targeted, said he had no connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Le Soir, he was added to the list because of his membership of a now defunct organisation supporting progressive Muslim voices. 

Singer Mennel Ibtissem was forced to leave a talent show in 2018 after old tweets of hers relating to terrorist attacks in Nice and Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray resurfaced. She later denounced the tweets, saying that she loved France and condemned violence, and that the tweets were written during a moment of anger to criticise "amalgams between terrorism and religion".

While the campaign has not deterred Diallo from continuing with her work as a journalist, she said she is now having to undertake various methods to protect herself further from harassment and being spied on. 

"I am going to international organisations who support and protect journalists at risk and I try to protect myself physically and digitally."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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