Forbidden Stories

Story Killers: Cash envelopes and indictments in France

In February 2023, the “Story Killers” project revealed widespread social media manipulation by cyber mercenaries. In France, prominent TV presenter Rachid M’Barki was accused of presenting unverified information upon instructions from a lobbyist. After our disclosures, a parliamentary commission of inquiry and the French justice system have taken up the case, leading to three indictments and putting a member of parliament in the investigators’ sights. One year on, Forbidden Stories is publishing a follow-up report along with new revelations.

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By Cécile Andrzejewski
and Léa Peruchon

15 February 2024

Translated by Mariana Abreu and Phineas Rueckert

The riveting saga involved a former 24-hour news channel presenter, a lobbyist, a political analyst with ties to Qatar and a Green Party MP. At the center of the scandal: Rachid M’Barki, former anchor for BFMTV, France’s most-watched breaking news channel. One year ago today, M’Barki was the subject of Forbidden Stories’ exposé as part of the Story Killers project, a global investigation into disinformation mercenaries. Today, the list of persons of interest continues to expand following a parliamentary inquiry – and Forbidden Stories is publishing exclusive new information about the allegations of corruption and influence trafficking in the country.

The M’Barki affair emerged in the wake of revelations by the consortium coordinated by Forbidden Stories regarding “Team Jorge,” a shadowy Israeli firm responsible for numerous manipulation operations around the world. Among its alleged clientele were private companies and politicians enticed by the company’s “turnkey” services. From computer hacking to a catalog of 30,000 automated bots and intelligence gathering, “Team Jorge” offered a wide range of informal services to steer public opinion and elections.

Helming the operation, Tal Hanan, who went by the code name ‘Jorge’ in secretly-filmed online and in-person meetings with Forbidden Stories and its partners, is no stranger to the influence game. Back in 2015, he was already selling his services to Cambridge Analytica – made infamous for harvesting the personal data of nearly 87 million Facebook accounts to be used for political targeting.

In 2022 meetings with journalists from the consortium posing as potential buyers, Hanan asserted he could even broadcast his clients’ messages on French television. He then proceeded to showcase a BFMTV segment featuring one of the channel’s presenters, Rachid M’Barki. When questioned internally, M’Barki explained to BFM’s management that he was following the instructions of Jean-Pierre Duthion, a media consultant and lobbyist unknown to the general public. In the wake of the revelations, M’Barki was suspended and then dismissed in February 2023.

In France, the National Assembly’s Commission of Inquiry into Political, Economic, and Financial Interference by Foreign Powers took on the case in March. Meanwhile, legal proceedings initiated by the Parquet National Financier, France’s financial prosecutor’s office, have resulted in the indictments of M’Barki, Duthion, and Nabil Ennasri, a political analyst close to Qatar. Also under scrutiny is ecologist MP Hubert Julien-Laferrière. New consortium findings suggest that Julien-Laferrière, previously implicated by the press, may have received substantial amounts of cash from various individuals involved in the case.

Forbidden Stories is bringing you the latest on the case and naming the key players.

Rachid M’Barki, the journalist at the heart of the scandal

As one of the emblematic faces of the news channel BFMTV, Rachid M’Barki found himself at the heart of the scandal in France. In a video shown by ‘Jorge’ to potential clients, presumably to show that his influence extended all the way to France, M’Barki can be seen reading a statement about European sanctions against Russia, which he suggests might be dire for yacht builders in Monaco.

Following an examination of this and other segments deviating from the channel’s editorial line, BFMTV terminated M’Barki’s contract in February 2023, citing “unauthorized insertion of information and a breach of editorial rules.” Questioned by the channel’s management, the journalist claimed to have followed “his own editorial free will,” a narrative he maintained when auditioned by the National Assembly’s Commission of Inquiry in March 2023. He also denied receiving payment from the lobbyist Duthion to broadcast any information on air: “There was never any question of remuneration or any other benefit whatsoever.”

His defense came crumbling down in December 2023 when he admitted to “receiving sums of money” and “actions of passive bribery” while under interrogation by the BRDE, the financial brigade of the Paris police, Le Parisien reported. “It’s an infringement, even a stab at the journalist’s code of ethics,” M’Barki told police.

Information obtained by the consortium confirms Le Parisien’s findings. The former BFMTV presenter admitted to receiving €6,000 to €8,000 in cash from Jean-Pierre Duthion on five or six occasions. On one occasion, Duthion allegedly provided him with funds for vacations.

According to messages found by investigators on Duthion’s phone, the journalist would send photos of his teleprompter, occasionally altering the text at the lobbyist’s request just before going on air—giving rise to the term ‘M’barkiser,’” roughly translatable to “M’Barkize.”

The former face of the news channel is now reportedly living in Morocco with his family. He was indicted on December 8 for “passive corruption” and “breach of trust.” According to La Lettre, he’s also been reported for “false testimony” before a parliamentary inquiry commission by Rassemblement National representative Jean-Philippe Tanguy. Neither he nor his lawyer followed-up to Forbidden Stories’ interview requests.

Jean-Pierre Duthion, the lobbyist

Duthion’s name was first brought up by M’Barki during his initial meeting with BFMTV management, shortly before the release of the “Story Killers” project. The journalist explained that information had been provided to him by a consultant named Jean-Pierre Duthion.

Commonly referred to as a disinformation “mercenary,” Duthion was primarily driven by profit, as stated in internal memos from an influence agency consulted by Forbidden Stories. He made a name for himself in the French media scene by chronicling the early days of the Syrian revolution. At the time, the lobbyist was running a lounge bar in Damascus, and he also offered his services as a fixer—a guide for journalists operating in a foreign country—to various French media outlets. According to L’Obs, a French magazine, “many supporters of the Syrian opposition criticize[d] his ambiguity and bias.” Upon returning to France, he began lobbying.

Much like M’Barki, Duthion denied taking part in any financial transactions in January 2023. “I have never paid a journalist, and I have never corrupted anyone,” he stated before the National Assembly’s Commission a few months later.

Police forces investigating the case came to a different conclusion. According to their findings, Duthion is accused of paying €6,000 to €8,000 after approaching M’Barki multiple times in the past two years. Duthion also admitted to convincing Green Party representative Hubert Julien-Laferrière to promote a questionable cryptocurrency project, Mediapart reported. Duthion has denied paying the politician.

According to our sources, Duthion was allegedly paid around €7,500 in cash every month for the better part of a year by Nabil Ennasri, a political analyst specializing in Qatar. The two men have reportedly fallen out since. In an interview with Radio France, Duthion’s lawyer, Robin Binsard, stated that his client “has never been directly connected to the Qatari authorities.” “He was indeed approached by certain intermediaries. He has never met them himself. Today, they want to make him bear the responsibility of a whole system,” Binsard said. He added that his client was “a loose cannon who could have been instrumentalized but never held an official role for Qatar” and that he “now understands that he is a pawn in a system that is bigger than him.” He decried that Ennasri was being made a “scapegoat.”

In October 2023, Duthion faced a series of indictments, including “corruption of a public official in a criminal organization,” “private corruption,” “influence peddling,” “concealed work,” “laundering of aggravated tax fraud” and “failure to declare” himself as an interest representative to the Haute Autorité pour la Transparence de la Vie Publique, an independent authority in charge of monitoring public officials.

On January 12, he admitted before a judge to bribing M’Barki. A complaint for “perjury” has been lodged by Tanguy, the MP from the Rassemblement National. “Some of the facts have now been acknowledged. He will take responsibility for them before the court,” Duthion’s lawyer said.

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Hubert Julien-Laferrière, the elected official

Julien-Laferrière’s name first surfaced in a Mediapart investigation following the publication of the “Story Killers” project revealing that the MP promoted a controversial cryptocurrency project before the National Assembly on behalf of Duthion.

While in custody, the lobbyist allegedly confessed to roping the deputy into the crypto scheme, but denied ever paying Julien-Laferrière for his services. Julien-Laferrière’s office and home were searched by the police in late September 2023.

In October of last year, Forbidden Stories’ partner Le Monde scoured Julien-Laferrière’s speeches at the parliamentary assembly. Their analysis revealed “several surprising stances, either contradicting those advocated by his fellow environmentalists or aligning precisely with ‘talking points’ disseminated by states like Qatar.”

According to our sources, during an October 2023 hearing, Duthion reportedly disclosed to investigators that he had facilitated the connection between Julien-Laferrière and Ennasri, the political analyst close to Qatar. The two individuals were in contact on numerous occasions, in 2022 and 2023, either through phone calls, online communication, or face-to-face meetings.

According to information obtained by Le Monde, Julien-Laferrière is also said to have received monthly installments of at least €5,000 for the better part of a year, some of which originated from a Qatari state entity and transited through Ennasri.

Shielded by parliamentary immunity, Julien-Laferrière has not yet been formally charged. Julien-Laferrière’s attorney did not respond to our requests for comment.

Nabil Ennasri, the political scientist

Until October 2023 Ennasri was not included in reports on the corruption scandal. That month, he was indicted on charges of “breach of trust,” “corruption and trafficking of public agent influence,” and “money laundering and aggravated tax fraud.” All of this came as part of a legal probe into suspicions of corruption and influence trafficking involving French figures. Unlike any other suspect, Ennasri was held in provisional detention.

The Qatar specialist is a familiar figure in the French media landscape, having openly supported “Manif pour Tous,” a movement opposed to the legalization of gay marriage, and regularly commenting on Qatari politics.

While in custody, Duthion reportedly admitted to receiving funds from Ennasri himself in order to lead his influence campaign, Le Parisien reported. This information was corroborated by our sources, which indicated that the lobbyist had allegedly received monthly payments of €7,500 in cash for nearly a year.

Ennasri is allegedly also linked to Julien-Laferrière, suspected of amplifying influence campaigns in France. In late September 2023, authorities searched the lawmaker’s office and residence. Between 2022 and 2023, Julien-Laferrière is said to have encountered Nabil Ennasri on multiple occasions, notably through phone calls, electronic communication, or face-to-face meetings. According to information from Le Monde, Ennasri provided cash to the MP in a regular fashion.

Currently, Ennasri laments that he is the sole suspect awaiting trial behind bars, “despite maintaining a clean criminal record.” He recently engaged in a nearly three-week hunger strike. Citing the confidentiality of the investigation, his lawyer declined to answer our questions.

Samuel and Jonathan-Simon Sellem, the intermediaries

In another investigation included in the “Story Killers” project, a certain Samuel Sellem takes the spotlight. In 2020, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) became the target of a smear campaign in Burkina Faso. Pulling the strings was an Israeli influence agency named Percepto International, working on behalf of the Burkinabe government. At the time, a smear campaign against the ICRC was sparked after an op-ed by researcher Emmanuel Dupuy was published in Valeurs Actuelles. When questioned by the consortium’s journalists, Dupuy said he was not acquainted with Percepto International. He admitted, however, that he was approached by “Samuel Sellem,” who he claimed was serving as a special advisor handling presidential communication for President Roch Marc-Christian Kaboré.

According to information obtained by the consortium, Sellem reportedly received just under €900 in cash from Duthion in 2021. Samuel’s brother, Jonathan-Simon Sellem, allegedly sent over €7,000 to the lobbyist in multiple installments, from March 2020 to May 2022.

The two brothers appear to have a notable presence in the world of influence, their names being brought up by various sources in association with campaigns led across the African continent. In a photo obtained by Forbidden Stories, they appear at a meal organized in December 2022 in Dubai with Duthion. The lobbyist is also said to have introduced Sellem to a former French local politician, presenting him as the manager of a company specializing in social media electoral campaigns, particularly involved in the reelection campaigns of heads of state. As of now, the French legal system is yet to take action on the matter.

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