In a shocking revelation, a senior journalist at France’s leading TV news channel, BFM, has been suspended amid a scandal that has exposed a disturbing network of corruption and influence buying within the international media landscape.
The suspension of 54-year-old Rachid M’Barki, a respected veteran at BFM, took place in January and raised many questions at the time. However, a recent investigation conducted by Le Monde newspaper in collaboration with the advocacy organization Forbidden Stories has shed light on the circumstances surrounding M’Barki’s suspension.
According to the investigation, M’Barki had been involved in running reports on various subjects, including luxury yachts in Monaco, a Sudanese opposition leader, and allegations of corruption in Qatar. What tied these reports together was their origin—a disinformation firm based in Israel that specializes in providing “news for hire.”
M’Barki has vehemently denied receiving any payment for running these stories, although he did admit to bypassing BFM’s standard editorial checks. He claims that an intermediary offered him the reports, and he exercised his own professional judgment in deciding to use them.
However, the investigators, in collaboration with Forbidden Stories, have presented evidence suggesting that the true source of these stories lies with a shadowy organization known as Team Jorge. Led by Tal Hanan, a former Israeli special forces officer, Team Jorge operates out of Tel Aviv and has become one of several players in the expanding realm of disinformation mercenaries. These private sector intelligence experts specialize in utilizing the internet to damage reputations or manipulate elections for a fee.
To gain access to Team Jorge, three journalists from the Forbidden Stories consortium posed as potential clients seeking to influence public opinion in French-speaking Africa on behalf of a major multinational corporation. After extensive negotiations, they managed to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Tal Hanan, during which they received a sales pitch for the services offered by Team Jorge.
Hanan boasted about his involvement in more than 30 elections and claimed to have access to the email and social media accounts of influential figures in Africa. The cornerstone of Team Jorge’s offer was a platform called Advanced Impact Media Solutions (AIMS), which generates tens of thousands of fake identities with accounts on Facebook and Telegram. These fake accounts are then deployed to disseminate campaign content and amplify its reach.
The investigation has identified approximately 20 different international campaigns believed to have been organized by Team Jorge. The worrying aspect of these revelations is that several of the news reports associated with these campaigns were aired on BFM without the knowledge or approval of the channel’s editorial team.
Upon reviewing the reports circulating on social media, the investigators noted two specific French-language television news segments that were supposedly broadcasted on BFM. Subsequent confirmation from BFM’s management revealed that these reports were indeed aired late at night but without proper authorization.
One of the reports focused on the European Union’s sanctions against Russia and their alleged impact on the luxury yacht industry in Monaco. The report made unsubstantiated claims that 10,000 jobs were at risk and that industry representatives had appealed to Prince Albert for assistance.
The second report, which aired in mid-December, covered a leafleting campaign in Paris accusing a former state prosecutor in Qatar of corruption. Originally shown during the early hours of the morning, these reports would have likely gone unnoticed. However, they gained traction when they were picked up and amplified by social media platforms and Team Jorge’s network of fake accounts, quickly going viral.
Credibility to rumors
By surreptitiously inserting these reports into mainstream French television, the organizers effectively lent credibility to what would otherwise have been baseless rumors. This strategy also provided Team Jorge with tangible evidence of its ability to influence Western media, which could be leveraged to attract future clients.
In addition to the aforementioned reports, M’Barki’s late-night show featured segments on a Sudanese general contemplating a presidential run and a trade show taking place in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Notably, in the latter report, the politically contentious term “Moroccan Sahara” was used instead of “Western Sahara,” a territory that has long been a subject of dispute between Morocco and the indigenous Sahrawi people, represented by the Polisario Front.
The investigation has thus far failed to identify the individuals or organizations responsible for commissioning these suspected campaigns. While some campaigns may have been initiated by governments, the majority, including the yacht story, appear to have been ordered by private interests.
The broader implications of this scandal are deeply concerning. The investigators view it as evidence of the increasing “Uberization” of the fake news industry, where disinformation mercenaries like Team Jorge provide their services to the highest bidder, perpetuating misinformation and undermining the integrity of journalism.
The fallout from this scandal has cast a shadow over BFM and raised questions about the vulnerabilities within media organizations worldwide. As the investigation progresses, it is crucial to reevaluate safeguards and protocols to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.
The uncovering of this corruption and disinformation scandal serves as a stark reminder of the importance of maintaining the integrity and trustworthiness of the media in an era dominated by online misinformation and manipulation.