Ruling

03252-18 Armanazi v The Sunday Times

    • Date complaint received

      18th October 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 9 Reporting of crime

Decision of the Complaints Committee 03252-18 Armanazi v The Sunday Times

Summary of complaint

1. Zayd Armanazi complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 9 (Reporting of Crime) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an online article headlined “Sarin chief’s sons are UK citizens”, published on 9 April 2017, and an article headlined “Sons of ‘chemical weapons chief’ enjoy life as British bankers”, published in print on 15 April 2018. The second article was also published online on 15 April 2018, with the headline “Sons of Syria’s ‘chemical weapons chief’ Amr Armanazi enjoy life as British bankers”.

2. The complainant was also acting on behalf of his wife, his brother Bisher Armanazi and his uncle Ghayth Armanazi. Zayd and Bisher Armanazi are the sons of Amr Armanazi, and Ghayth Armanazi is his brother. The newspaper described Amr Armanazi as “Syria’s alleged chemical weapons chief”.

3. The first article was published the week after a sarin gas attack had taken place in Syria’s Idlib province, which had allegedly been carried out by the Syrian government. It reported that Bisher and Ghayth Armanazi had been granted UK citizenship, despite the fact that Amr Armanazi had been placed under international sanctions for running a facility in Syria which had allegedly been involved in the production of sarin nerve gas and other weapons of mass destruction. It noted that Zayd Armanazi had been a British citizen since 2009, and that Amr Armanazi’s family in the UK had denied he was involved in military activities, and had “described [the] massacre as a ‘heinous crime’”. The article was illustrated with an image of Bisher Armanazi.

4. The second article was published the day after Syria’s chemical weapons facilities had been targeted by allied air strikes. It formed part of a package of stories set out under the headline “A flash of fear as Assad sets sights on next ‘kill box’”. It reported that Amr Armanazi, described as Syria’s “alleged chemical weapons chief”, had “extensive ties to Britain, including two sons who worked in the City as investment bankers”. It named his sons and said that they had come to Britain to study before “embarking on lucrative banking careers”, and it named his brother, “a former ambassador for the Arab League”, who also lived in London. It said that all three were British passport holders and they lived with their families “in mansion blocks in affluent areas” of the capital.

5. The second article stated that Zayd Armanazi had gained British citizenship in 2009, before the start of the Syrian conflict, but his brother and uncle had become citizens in 2013, a year after Amr Armanazi had been blacklisted by the US. It said that Amr Armanazi had been placed under UK and EU sanctions in 2014; this banned him from travelling to Britain and Europe and froze any assets he held in the EU. The article quoted Ghayth Armanazi who had said that his brother “handles just normal civilian operations. I’m aghast at what’s happening in Syria”, and Zayd Armanazi who had described the chemical attacks in Syria as a “heinous crime”. The article concluded by stating that Home Office guidance changed in 2015 so that an applicant could be refused citizenship based on “family association to individuals engaged in terrorism or unacceptable behaviour”. It was illustrated with a photograph which showed Bisher and Zayd Armanazi, amongst others, with their father.

6. The complainant said that given the alleged chemical attacks in Syria in April 2017 and April 2018, the military responses from the US, the UK and France, and his father's public position, he could understand that there was a public interest in publishing a story about his father. However, he strongly objected to the newspaper’s decision to involve him and other family members in the coverage; this represented a breach of Clause 9. He said they were not public figures; they were irrelevant to the stories; and their inclusion had wrongly implied guilt by association. In fact, they had all gained UK citizenship lawfully and on their own merits; and he had obtained citizenship before his father was placed under sanctions. He said the misleading articles had triggered hate and disdain towards his family in the UK, which was demonstrated by numerous comments posted by readers beneath the articles online.

7. The complainant said that his family were not genuinely relevant to the story. The references to them were entirely disproportionate to their involvement in the allegations against Amr Armanazi, given that they had no involvement whatsoever. The articles had focused on them, rather than Amr Armanazi. For instance, the first article had included an image of Bisher Armanazi without his father, demonstrating that the focus was not on the “alleged chemical weapons chief”, but on the family.

8. The complainant said that the family had not consented to their identification in either article. The reporter had contacted him before the first article was published, and he had told the reporter that he was not interested in speaking to him. The reporter had said that the article would name them, but would note that they had declined to comment or that they were unavailable for comment. He had advised that it would be favourable if they said something in their defence.

9. In a later telephone conversation with the reporter, the complainant had again made clear that they did not wish to be named, and the reporter had said that he was obliged to name them, as Amr Armanazi’s links to the UK were matters of public interest. Given that the reporter had made clear that his decision to name them was final and non-negotiable, the brothers had felt that they had no choice but to consent to being quoted. They had therefore spoken to the reporter about their background, and their position regarding the allegations against Amr Armanazi, trusting that he would not present a distorted image of them. The reporter had expressly told them that he would try to “portray a balance as much as possible and to paint out a human character, and where your family comes from”. They had not been informed that the forthcoming article would, in fact, question their rights to citizenship and discuss their careers and lifestyles.

10. The complainant said that they did not make a complaint after the first article was published because they had no faith in the newspaper’s complaints process and they were unaware of IPSO. They had hoped that the story would become outdated and would not be republished. However, the newspaper should not have taken the absence of a complaint as consent to publish the second article.

11. The complainant had refused to speak to the reporter before the second article was published, and his brother had explicitly told the reporter that he did not consent to the publication of their names, to quote them or to use their pictures. This was demonstrated by the recordings and pre-publication correspondence provided by the newspaper during IPSO’s investigation.

12. The complainant was also concerned that the second article had included a photograph which showed his wife. After the first article was published, she had kept her connection to the Armanazi family private. Although her face was blurred in the image published in the second article, she was identified from it, and this had affected her personally and professionally. He considered that she was certainly not genuinely relevant to the story because she was not even a direct relative of Amr Armanazi.

13. The complainant said that the articles were also deliberately misleading in breach of Clause 1. They had inaccurately suggested that members of the family were connected to Syria’s chemical weapons program; that they supported the actions of the Syrian regime; and that they did not deserve to have built their careers in the UK or to have obtained UK citizenship. The complainant had explained to the reporter that his father had no links to the UK: the last time he had visited was in 2005 and he had no business or financial interests in the country. Furthermore, the family had built their careers on their own merits in the UK, without any funding from Amr Armanazi, and they had obtained citizenship lawfully. In addition, they had all lived in the UK for many years before Amr Armanazi was sanctioned: the complainant had lived in the UK since 1998, his brother since 2001, and their uncle since 1974. The reporter had failed to include this background information in the article, which had given the significantly misleading impression that their right to citizenship should be questioned.

14. The complainant also considered that the newspaper had deliberately given a significantly misleading impression of their lifestyles in order to create unjustified hatred towards them. Although he and his brother worked in the banking industry, it was inaccurate to describe their careers as “lucrative”, as stated in the second article. Furthermore, they did not live in “mansion blocks” or “affluent areas” of London. In fact, Ghayth Armanazi lived in a courthouse and Bisher Armanazi lived in a purpose-built flat. The complainant also objected to the published assumption that they “enjoyed life”. The newspaper had deliberately exploited public anger towards wealthy bankers and the war in Syria to create hatred towards them.

15. The complainant also considered that the second article had inaccurately asserted that Home Office guidance had changed and members of his family would now be refused citizenship due to their relation to Amr Armanazi. He had found no evidence that any such guidance existed and considered that the false statement had misled readers into questioning their right to British citizenship. Furthermore, any such guidance would not have applied to them as they had not made a “conscious decision to associate with individuals involved in terrorist/extremist activities” as stated in the Home Office’s The Good Character Requirement Guidance.

16. The complainant said that the newspaper had published a private photograph in the second article, without consent. He said the image was taken from a Facebook profile, which had only become public due to Facebook changing its privacy rules, and it was removed from the site a long time before the article was published in April 2018. Given that the image was not in the public domain at the time the second article was published, the complainant considered that they had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to it. Furthermore, his brother had expressly told the reporter before the second article was published that he did not consent to the publication of his image.

17. The newspaper denied that it had breached the Code. It said that the complainants had cooperated with its investigation; they had been aware that they would be named and they had consented to their identification in the first article. The stories also concerned matters of significant public interest.

18. The newspaper said that the articles focused on Amr Armanazi and his links to the UK. It considered that this was a subject of public interest and the public interest was particularly acute at the time of publication following the chemical attacks on Syrian civilians. The complainant, his brother and uncle were unquestionably relevant to the issue as they were Amr Armanazi’s link to this country. The fact they had obtained citizenship and enjoyed comfortable lives in the UK despite their father/brother being the subject of international sanctions, given his alleged role in the chemical attacks on civilians by the Syrian regime, was a matter of public interest. That interest was not reduced by the fact that the brothers had worked hard to obtain their jobs and their lifestyles.

19. The newspaper also considered that, as reported in the second article, if the family applied for British citizenship today, it was possible that they would be refused because of a change in Home Office guidance, introduced in 2015. That guidance stated that citizenship may be refused if there was “family association to individuals engaged in terrorism or unacceptable behaviour”. The newspaper considered that the articles contributed to a public debate on citizenship and the application and effect of international sanctions; this was also a matter of public interest.

20. The newspaper accepted that the complainant and his family had not consented to being identified in the second article. It considered, however, that their consent to identification in both articles was not a condition of publication as they were clearly relevant to the subject matter. In any event, they had co-operated with the publication of the first article and agreed quotes had been included. The newspaper had agreed not to publish the names of their employers or to identify where in London they lived. No complaints were made after the first article was published.

21. The newspaper considered that the extent of the complainants’ co-operation with the reporter before the first article was published was evidenced by the pre-publication correspondence, as well as the recordings of the reporter’s conversations with the complainant, which had taken place on 12 November 2016 and 7 April 2017. The newspaper provided this material to IPSO.

22. The newspaper said that the second article had merely repeated the same personal information contained in the first article; information that had been published with consent and without complaint.

23. In addition, the newspaper noted that information concerning Amr Armanazi’s family links to the UK was already in the public domain at the time of publication. It pointed to two articles, one of which named the complainants as the sons and brother of Amr Armanazi. 

24. With regard to the complainant’s concern that his wife had been identified due to the image published in the second article, the newspaper said that this photograph was available to the public via his sister’s Facebook profile. There was no suggestion that she kept the identity of her husband or his family secret; the newspaper had taken care to pixellate her face and she was not named in the articles.

25. The newspaper denied that the articles were inaccurate or misleading. It said that, although it was not strictly necessary for it to do so, it had given the family an opportunity to comment and in doing so it had ensured that it had taken the care required by the Code to ensure it was publishing fair and accurate content.

26. The newspaper considered that it was not in dispute that the complainant, his brother and uncle had UK citizenship, and that the brothers had successful careers in banking. While the reporter had discussed with the brothers how they had come to the UK, the newspaper was not obliged to publish that information. Similarly, it was not obliged to report on how they had built their careers in the City. The omission of this information did not render the articles misleading.

27. The newspaper also denied that it had given a misleading impression of the complainants’ wealth and lifestyle in the UK. It said that what constituted a “lucrative” career was subjective; the average employee of an investment bank, including technology professionals, would earn many times the average salary in this country. Furthermore, properties in the areas in which the complainants lived, at the intersection of zones two and three, could not be afforded by the average Londoner; it was not inaccurate to describe them as “affluent areas”. It also did not consider that it was misleading to state that the complainants lived in “mansion blocks”. Although there may be architectural differences between “mansion blocks” and “court houses”, the average reader would use the term “mansion block” to describe Ghayth Armanazi’s home. While it was not technically accurate to describe Bisher Armanazi’s “purpose built” flat as a “mansion block”, it did not consider that this was a significant inaccuracy requiring correction.

28. The newspaper denied that the articles suggested that the complainants were guilty by association or that they were individually connected to Syria’s chemical weapons programme. It noted that the articles had included their condemnation of the events in Syria and their concern for those living there. Equally, it considered that there was no suggestion that their careers had been the result of "corruption rather than merit" as the articles were not about how they had obtained their jobs; the articles reported what they did.

29. The newspaper acknowledged the complainants’ concerns for their personal security following the articles’ publication. However, it did not accept that the information published was private or that the articles had created a risk to the family’s security, aside from any risk that presented as a consequence of their relationship to Amr Armanazi. The information was already in the public domain: their names, relationship with Amr Armanazi and the nature of their employment were not private at the time of publication. It referred to the Financial Services Authority's register to demonstrate that information about Bisher and Zayd Armanazi’s employment was already publicly available. In any event, the newspaper considered that the family had consented to being identified and quoted in the first article; no additional personal information had been included in the second article.

30. With regard to the complainant’s concern that the second article had made an inaccurate reference to Home Office guidance, the newspaper said that it had approached the Home Office for comment in November 2016, and it provided the correspondence. In its reply, the Home Office explained that its guidance had changed in 2015 and that "an applicant’s family association to individuals engaged in terrorism or unacceptable behaviour, or those who have raised security concerns, may cause the applicant to be refused citizenship.” The newspaper said that the information had been checked with the Home Office again before publication in April 2017, and the Home Office had confirmed in August 2018, during IPSO’s investigation, that the information remained correct and it provided the email. The information had been correctly reported in the second article.

31. The newspaper said that the images it had published were taken from a publicly accessible social media account. There were no security settings in place when the reporter accessed the images. Even if the pictures had subsequently been removed from social media or if steps had been taken to put security restrictions on the account, the pictures had been made public and were not therefore private at the time of publication. The newspaper also considered that the images had conveyed the fact of the family relationship and Bisher Armanazi’s face; there was nothing intrinsically private about this information. Care was taken to blur the image of Zayd Armanazi’s wife as she was not a direct relative of Amr Armanazi.

Relevant Code provisions

32. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Clause 2 (Privacy)*

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

Clause 9 (Reporting of Crime)*

i) Relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime should not generally be identified without their consent, unless they are genuinely relevant to the story.

Public Interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

  • Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  • Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.

4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.

Findings of the Committee

33. Both articles were published in the context of major global news stories: the first article was published shortly after Syrian citizens had been attacked with chemical weapons allegedly manufactured by the facilities overseen by Amr Armanazi, and the second piece followed allied military action targeted at those very facilities. In this setting, the first article had reported that “the son and brother of President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged chemical weapons chief have been granted UK citizenship even though he is under international sanctions”, and that his eldest son had obtained citizenship in 2009, under the headline, "Sarin chief’s sons are UK citizens”. The second article, which followed an airstrike on alleged Syrian chemical weapons facilities, contrasted the complainant and his relatives’ lives in the UK with the situation in Syria.

34. The Committee noted that the purpose of Clause 9 is to protect the families and friends of people accused or convicted of crime from being caught unnecessarily in the media spotlight. It acknowledged the complainant’s position that he, his brother and his uncle were private citizens with no role in the events in Syria, and that the complainant had been granted citizenship before his father was placed under sanctions.

35. However, the articles under complaint concerned the UK’s public policy on applications for citizenship, and in particular the recent amendment of Home Office guidance providing that an applicant could be refused citizenship based on “family association to individuals engaged in terrorism or unacceptable behaviour”. In this context, the fact that Amr Armanazi’s family members had been able to obtain or retain their British citizenship despite the allegations against him was a legitimate matter of public discussion and debate specifically because of their familial relationship to him. Their case, which included the details of when and how they had moved to the UK and obtained UK citizenship, directly illustrated a public policy issue and had the potential to contribute to the debate surrounding who should qualify for UK citizenship, and who should not. In the specific context of this story, identifying the complainant and other family members as relatives of Amr Armanazi was not a breach of Clause 9; they were directly relevant to the story.

36. There was a dispute between the parties as to whether the complainant and his brother had consented to being identified in the first article. The Committee noted that the complainant had made clear that he and his brother did not want to be named, and he had only cooperated with the reporter’s enquiries because he was told that they would be named regardless. However, as previously discussed, the complainant, his brother and uncle were genuinely relevant to the stories. It was therefore not necessary for the newspaper to obtain their consent.

37. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that his wife, who was not a direct relative of Amr Armanazi, had been identified in the second article. However, the newspaper had taken steps to conceal her identity and it had not named her. She did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the fact she was married to Amr Armanazi’s son. There was no breach of Clause 9 on this point.

38. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concern that the coverage had intruded into his private life and that of his family. However, the fact that the complainant, his brother and uncle were related to Amr Armanazi, with whom they shared a surname, was not a matter about which they had a reasonable expectation of privacy. The Committee noted that they had already been named in relation to Amr Armanazi and his work at the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, in an article published in 2013. Members of the family had also disclosed the family connection on a social media site that was not protected by privacy settings. Their professions and the fact they lived in London were also not private. There was no breach of Clause 2 on this point.

39. Before the second article was published, Bisher Armanazi had expressly stated that he did not consent to his photograph being used. The newspaper had proceeded to publish a photograph of him with members of his family in the second article anyway. However, the newspaper had obtained the published the image from an open Facebook profile. Regardless of whether the privacy settings had later been changed, the image had been in the public domain; it was not private. Furthermore, it merely showed the complainant and his brother’s faces, and illustrated their connection to Amr Armanazi. It did not disclose any private information about them in breach of Clause 2. There was no breach of Clause 2.

40. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had implied that they were guilty by association, and that it had failed to report the background information that he and his brother had given to the reporter, which would have made clear to readers that they had achieved success and citizenship on their own merits and lawfully. However, the newspaper was not obliged to report all the information the brothers had provided. Both the articles included quotations attributed to them individually, in which they expressed their horror at the events in Syria, and which had previously been agreed. The Committee noted in particular that the first article reported that the family had said that the chemical weapons attacks were a “heinous crime”; this was repeated in the second article and attributed to the complainant. The articles had not given the misleading impression that the complainant, his brother or his uncle were involved in the allegations against Amr Armanazi, or that they had benefited from his alleged work on Syria’s chemical weapons programme. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the articles on this point.

41. The complainant had considered that the second article had inaccurately suggested that he and his family would not have gained citizenship under current Home Office rules. The newspaper had obtained the reported information from the Home Office in November 2016, and it provided the email correspondence. It said that it had also checked the information with the Home Office before the first article was published in April 2017, and the Home Office had confirmed again – during IPSO’s investigation – that the information remained correct. As the information had been obtained directly from the primary source and checked before publication, there was no failure to take care over its accuracy in breach of Clause 1. The newspaper had accurately reported the information the Home Office had provided. It had not asserted as fact that the complainant and his family would not now obtain UK citizenship. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

42. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had given a significantly misleading impression of the lives his family led in the UK, in order to exploit public hatred of bankers and the Syrian regime. However, it was not in dispute that the complainant and his brother worked in the banking industry and that their uncle had been an ambassador for the Arab League. The complainant had also accepted that he had been “successful” in his career. It was not significantly misleading for the newspaper to have described these career paths as “lucrative”.

43. While the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that they did not live in “affluent” areas of London, the level of a neighbourhood’s affluence is somewhat subjective, and the Committee did not consider that the reporter’s characterisation of the areas as “affluent” was misleading. The reporter had also confirmed where they lived by visiting their homes. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the articles on this point.

44. The Committee noted that the newspaper had accepted that Bisher Armanazi did not live in a “mansion block”, but in the context of this article, this did not represent a significant inaccuracy that required correction under the terms of Clause 1. It was also not significant whether Ghayth Armanazi lived in a courthouse or a mansion block. These points did not represent a failure to take care over the accuracy of the articles in breach of Clause 1.

45. The Committee did not consider that the report that the family “enjoyed life” in the UK was an assertion of fact. The phrase merely served to present the contrast between the experiences of those who lived in peace in the UK, to those who currently lived in war-torn Syria. The reference was not misleading. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the articles. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusion

46. The complaint was not upheld.

Date complaint received: 28/04/18

Date decision issued: 18/09/18

Review

The complainants complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.