British Foreign Office urged to retract its attack on Declassified UK’s independent journalism

The British embassy in Bolivia has publicly accused Declassified UK of running a “campaign of disinformation” over an article it published showing UK support for a coup in the South American country. Declassified has written to the UK Foreign Office demanding the embassy retract and apologise for its serious, false allegation.

12 March 2021
  • This is the third time the UK authorities have sought to silence the independent media outlet. It follows two cases of blacklisting, one of which resulted in an apology from the Ministry of Defence. 

The British embassy in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, released a statement on Wednesday claiming investigative journalism outlet Declassified UK was engaged in a “campaign of disinformation”. 

The accusation came two days after Declassified published an exclusive article about UK support for the Bolivian regime that took power in a coup in November 2019 and forced democratically elected President Evo Morales to flee to Mexico.

Disinformation is defined by the British government as “the deliberate creation and sharing of false and/or manipulated information that is intended to deceive and mislead audiences, either for the purposes of causing harm, or for political, personal or financial gain”.

Despite the seriousness of the claim, the embassy’s statement offered no evidence that Declassified had used false or manipulated information. 

In fact, the article was based entirely on open-source information and documents released to Declassified by the Foreign Office itself, under the UK’s freedom of information laws. 

The use of the term “disinformation” is alarming for UK journalists, as it can lead to action being taken against them by the military and intelligence agencies.

Declassified has urgently asked the British Embassy to retract its statement and issue an apology.

The UK ambassador to Bolivia, Jeff Glekin, who publicly backed the 2019 coup, was summoned for a meeting by Bolivia’s minister for foreign affairs, Rogelio Mayta, on Wednesday following the publication of Declassified’s investigation.

After their meeting Mayta said that the British ambassador had “corroborated some of the sources”, adding: “We are following the thread of some other elements that this journalistic note has left us.”

Glekin, meanwhile, told reporters: “We have not had any involvement in any situation against democracy in Bolivia. We deny all these accusations of the article that we have seen.”

Bolivia Documents

Documents released to Declassified by the Foreign Office under the UK’s freedom of information laws, covering some of its programmes in Bolivia from 2015-20, and upon which it based its article.

Media Freedom

The challenge to Declassified comes as the UK government is promoting a global “media freedom” campaign which states that “attacks on media freedom are attacks on human rights”.

Meanwhile, the government has been criticised in the UK for arresting and verbally attacking independent journalists. 

Both the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the UK’s largest intelligence agency, GCHQ, have previously blacklisted Declassified. The MOD subsequently issued an unprecedented public apology to the media organisation for failing to uphold civil service guidelines on dealing with journalists. 

Declassified’s article on Bolivia contained evidence that the UK not only welcomed the coup regime but also saw it as an opportunity to open up Bolivia’s lithium deposits to UK firms.

Bolivia has the world’s second-largest reserves of lithium, a metal that is used to make batteries and which has become increasingly important due to the burgeoning electric car industry.

In response to our article, the British Embassy issued a communiqué in Spanish stating: “We condemn this lamentable campaign of disinformation.”

It offered no justification for this claim, stating that information about the embassy projects referred to in the article “has always been in the public domain”. 

The embassy further stated: “The vast majority of the projects mentioned in [Declassified’s article] began during the previous MAS government, and were developed in coordination with the highest authorities.” 

This was never in dispute and is documented in the Declassified article, which has a section outlining the long-standing links between Evo Morales’s MAS government and the UK Embassy on the issue of lithium. 

Supporting the regime

The documents we published show that the UK Embassy in La Paz cosied up to the military-backed regime after it had given security forces immunity for taking action to defend “public order”. The regime went on to kill 18 protesters in November 2019. 

In March 2020, four months after Morales was overthrown, the new regime organised a series of new initiatives “with the UK as a strategic partner”, the documents note.

In the same month, British diplomats partnered with the coup regime’s Ministry of Mining to organise an “international seminar” for more than 300 officials from the global extractives sector.

A UK firm founded by a British Army veteran was “now in line to offer its services” to mining companies, the Foreign Office noted after the event.

Prior to publishing our original article, Declassified followed up with a number of queries to the government department, which went unanswered. 

Britain’s Foreign Office is known to have publicly supported the coup in Bolivia, releasing a statement soon after saying: “The United Kingdom congratulates Jeanine Áñez on taking on her new responsibilities as interim President of Bolivia.” 

It added: “We welcome Ms Áñez’ appointment and her declared intention to hold elections soon.”

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab stated: “We hope that the current crisis in Bolivia can now be resolved swiftly, peacefully and in a democratic way. The Bolivian people deserve to have the opportunity to vote in free and fair elections.”

But Raab and the Foreign Office made no further comments as the new regime’s forces carried out two massacres the following week.

Bolivia’s ‘interim president’ Jeanine Áñez (above) in conversation with UK ambassador Jeff Glekin on July 21 2020. (Photo: Jeanine Áñez/Facebook)

The UK ambassador at the time, Glekin, who remains in post, wrote on his Twitter account two weeks after the coup: “Hello #pititatwittera I’m the British ambassador in #Bolivia. Follow me please”. 

Pititas is what protesters opposed to Evo Morales called themselves before the coup of November 2019. Pita means “string” or “washing line” and the protesters’ signature tactic was to block roads with washing lines during their protests.

Glekin’s tweet about pititas was sent on 28 November, exactly a week after regime forces killed 10 protesters in the neighbourhood of Senkata just outside La Paz.

Glekin later told local media: “The previous government was not very in favour of foreign investment. So, with the changes that we are going to see, it will be easier to enter the market and do business.” 

He added: “The demand for lithium is growing and Bolivia must take advantage of that opportunity.”

Action by the military?

The attack on Declassified’s journalism comes days after Boris Johnson launched an action plan to protect UK journalists from intimidation.

This week the prime minister said: “Freedom of speech and a free press are at the very core of our democracy, and journalists must be able to go about their work without being threatened.

“This action plan is just the start of our work to protect those keeping the public informed, and defend those holding the government to account.”

Yet there are potentially more sinister implications of the embassy’s accusation against Declassified. It is known that the UK authorities can allow action to be taken by its military and intelligence agencies against those deemed as promoting disinformation. 

In January the Ministry of Defence published a strategy document called “The Orchestration of Military Strategic Effects”. It states that Britain’s armed forces have a role to play in “countering disinformation…as part of a proactive, preventative approach” to prevent “instability”.

The document praises the Bellingcat website for exposing the role of Russian intelligence in the 2018 Salisbury poisonings in the UK. 

It says the website “wrested the initiative from the Russian authorities, highlighting both the ineptitude of the operation and the Russian state’s efforts to mask their clandestine activities”.

The UK military said this was “an example of information advantage”.

However, similar investigations by Declassified into the UK government’s own covert actions have been treated differently. Last July a British army officer designated Declassified as a “hostile website”, according to an independent review. 

Defence secretary Ben Wallace later apologised for the incident, but refused to say which unit the army officer came from, claiming the soldier had done nothing wrong.

Some British army units, such as the secretive 77th Brigade, are dedicated to conducting “information warfare” against targets and are involved in “counter disinformation” operations in the UK – a fact the UK government has conceded.

Defence chief General Sir Nick Carter said at a Covid-19 briefing that the 77th Brigade was “helping to quash rumours from misinformation, but also counter disinformation” (Photo: 10 Downing Street)

It has also been revealed that GCHQ has been tasked with conducting “information operations” to destroy the “reputations” of designated targets.

Declassified is a small, independent investigative media organisation founded in 2019 by historian and author Mark Curtis and former Financial Times journalist Matt Kennard, who authored the Bolivia investigation. 

It has a policy of not accepting any government or corporate funding and is financed solely through public donations and independent foundations.