French news channel fires anchor linked to Israeli disinformation network scandal

Rachid M’Barki, a familiar face on BFMTV, let go after external influence probe finds firm had planted reports and journalist failed to follow due editorial process

A screenshot from a BFMTV newscast in August 2022 featuring anchor Rachid M'Barki. (Screenshot via YouTube; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
A screenshot from a BFMTV newscast in August 2022 featuring anchor Rachid M'Barki. (Screenshot via YouTube; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

PARIS, France — France’s leading 24-hour news channel BFMTV on Thursday said it had fired an anchor after a probe into alleged external influence in his work, according to a company message seen by AFP.

Rachid M’Barki was fired this week after the probe revealed that due editorial process had not been followed in several segments aired between 2021 and 2022, the channel’s director general Marc-Olivier Fogiel said in the message.

The segments concerned issues including Russian oligarchs, Qatar, and Western Sahara. The Forbidden Stories reporters collective has linked the case to a bid by an Israeli firm dubbed “Team Jorge” to influence elections worldwide for clients.

The channel had opened its inquiry in January into the work of M’Barki, a familiar face on its roster of news anchors.

In the reports in question, “these shortcomings were the sole responsibility of one journalist who has not respected the rules in force within the editorial staff,” Fogiel said in the message.

He added that the channel has also filed a legal complaint — not targeting the journalist personally — over the influence-peddling to which the channel had fallen victim.

The channel would now “further reinforce” its editorial controls, he said.

The Forbidden Stories investigation, carried out by outlets including Israel’s Haaretz and The Marker, The Guardian in Britain, Le Monde in France, Der Spiegel in Germany, and El Pais in Spain, accused an Israeli firm of seeking to influence more than 30 elections around the world for clients by hacking, sabotage and spreading disinformation. Forbidden Stories is a French nonprofit that aims to continue the work of assassinated, threatened or imprisoned journalists.

According to the investigation, “Team Jorge” was led by Tal Hanan, 50, a former Israeli special forces operative named as the mastermind behind the Israeli operation, which runs a sophisticated software known as Aims that is capable of hacking social media accounts of senior officials and of easily creating networks of up to 30,000 propaganda bots on social media.

Tal Hanan, the leader of a team allegedly meddling in election and commercial campaigns around the world, at his office in Modiin, December 2022. (Screenshot: YouTube; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The report said the Israeli initiative was behind fake campaigns — mostly on commercial disputes — in some 20 countries, including Britain, the US, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, Senegal, India and the United Arab Emirates. There was no mention of campaigns in Israel itself.

M’Barki’s case was only a small example of the extent of the network’s disinformation work, according to the report. He was suspended on January 11, just under a month before the investigation was published.

The investigation said the firm had planted reports on BFMTV about the impact of sanctions against Russia on the yachting industry in Monaco.

Speaking to Politico at the beginning of February, M’Barki acknowledged using information that had not been through the channel’s usual vetting procedures.

“I’m not ruling anything out. Maybe I was tricked, though it did not feel like it was the case, or that I was taking part in an operation… Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done it,” he said.

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