Report: NGS under criminal investigation

National-Geographic-bribery-probe-vocativ

Some excerpts:

By Aram Roston
Posted: OCT 27, 2013 15:20 UTC
UPDATED: OCT 27, 2013 23:09 UTC

This is not your typical story about international bribery. For one thing, it involves mummies. It also involves one of America’s most beloved institutions: National Geographic.

Vocativ has learned that the Justice Department has opened a criminal bribery investigation into the prestigious nonprofit. At issue: Nat Geo’s tangled relationship with Dr. Zahi Hawass, a world-famous Indiana Jones–type figure who for years served as the official gatekeeper to Egypt’s glittering antiquities.

Beginning in 2001 and continuing for a decade, National Geographic paid the archaeologist between $80,000 and $200,000 a year for his expertise. The payments came at a time when the popularity of mummies and pharaohs was helping transform the 125-year-old explorer society into a juggernaut with multiple glossies, a publishing house and a television channel. But they also came as Hawass was still employed by the Egyptian government to oversee the country’s priceless relics.

So did this money give Nat Geo unfair access to a lucrative market for all things ancient Egypt? National Geographic wouldn’t comment on any investigation or “conversations we may or may not have had with governmental bodies about legal matters,” says a spokeswoman for the nonprofit. But the company says its payments were lawful. As for Hawass, he firmly denies that anything untoward took place. “It was a contract,” he says. “It was not a bribe. I gave no single favor to National Geographic.”

Whether Nat Geo broke the law is unclear. But its relationship with Hawass offers a window into the interlaced world of money, science and show business that has developed around Egypt’s artifacts. …

The story of how National Geographic found itself in potential legal hot water coincides with the nonprofit’s decision to launch an American cable channel. For years Nat Geo was known for its iconic, yellow-bordered magazine and lush photography. It produced books and documentaries, had a show on PBS and dabbled in cable TV overseas. But it wasn’t until 2001 that the society partnered with Fox and launched the National Geographic Channel in the United States, the biggest television market in the world. This decision cast the society into a pitched battle for ratings with the likes of Discovery Networks.

Seven months after the channel launched, National Geographic announced it was adding Hawass as explorer-in-residence—an honor held by the likes of Jane Goodall, the legendary anthropologist. …

The relationship between Hawass and Nat Geo was a knotted one, and legal experts say it presented unique challenges in parsing the law. Every two years, Hawass signed a new explorer-in-residence agreement with National Geographic, and every two years, the society paid him more and more money. In his contract, Hawass had to indicate that his services for National Geographic—evidently a few lectures and some consulting projects—were outside his official duties as a government official. He also had to agree that his services were legal under Egyptian law.

American law, experts say, may be a different matter entirely. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act makes it illegal to pay foreign officials for “securing any improper advantage,” according to the Justice Department. Criminal bribery penalties can be stiff, with company fines up to $2 million. Individuals can be forced to serve up to five years in prison and pay more than $250,000. …

Indeed, despite his agreement with National Geographic, Hawass sometimes provided full access to their rivals. “Nat Geo and Discovery were always kind of competing with each other for what Zahi would throw them,” says one source, “for what project Zahi would grant them the right to produce as an exclusive.”

The ratings battle was so heated that some are convinced National Geographic did whatever it could to stay in Hawass’ good graces. Chris Hedges, a well-known former New York Times reporter, says the society was so obsessed with access that it killed one of his stories for their magazine in 2003. The topic: the dark side of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, a police state replete with poverty and repression. “It was all laid out,” he says. “And the television division read it and freaked out.” The fear, Hedges was told, was that the Egyptian government would be furious. And though he was paid in full, the story never ran.

Chris Johns, who was and still is editor in chief of National Geographic magazine, disagreed with Hedges about the story. ”As anyone who has ever done editorial work knows, stories get changed, dropped and redirected all the time and for all kinds of reasons,” he said. “In this particular case, my decision not to move forward had nothing whatsoever to do with National Geographic Television, nor any concerns that someone in Egypt may or may not have had.” …

Read the whole thing here.

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The story spreads via Twitter:

{ as of 28 October 2013 @ 1:50pm }

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  • Jan Adkins

    Alan:

    There are two separate mysteries here, one very old, one uncomfortably contemporary.

    Paying Dr. Hawass baksheesh for access, even in exorbitent amounts, is a time-honored artifact of Egyptology, of archaeology as a science. The earliest archaeologists – Heinrich Schliemann and Priam’s Treasure come to mind – were genteel bandits, smugglers, gentlemen pillagers. The science broadened but the strong current of secrecy and chicanery has always lurked only a shovel’s breadth beneath the surface. George Stuart, our brilliant and gracious resident Mayanologist, made it plain that every “respectable” explorer of the buried past was obliged to duck into the shadows often, to view the whole range of finds, legal and illegal.

    The Egyptologist is probably closer to the old professional corruption than New World scientists. It’s an old lodge with hallowed rules and unspoken conventions. It’s quite possible that Dr. Hawass couldn’t do his job thoroughly if he didn’t spread dollar lubricant throughout the ancient gears of the artifact machine.

    I’m not defending corruption but, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” It’s Egypt, it’s the old, old world of small fiefdoms exploiting great bank accounts. It’s the way Old Archaeology works. Cry alas and lackaday, and hope to hell that our own political corruption is equally biddable, equally predictable. Hawass knows how to work the system. We pay him for that knowledge as much as for his expertise in the pharaonic succession.

    The other issue here is far more upsetting, more contemporary, and close to what Society Matters witnesses. A story by Hawass on Mubarak’s tainted administration was killed by howls from the National Geographic Channel? The tail wagged the dog? Big Murdoch Money trumped truth, journalistic ethics, clear sight and honesty from a reliable inside source?

    Shame! Despicable conduct from a craven boardroom. Does the advertising editor tell the editor in chief what stories to pursue? Sure they do: in tabloids and hot rod magazines. Not in what was once the most respected example of world journalism, not Geographic.

    I sat in weekly scheduling meetings for almost nine years and listened carefully to reasons for delaying or even dropping stories. Dropping a story that was laid out and ready to print was never an option. Stories were dropped because coverage wasn’t complete, because coverage of significance wasn’t possible, because a writer had died or the story was stale. Stories weren’t dropped out of fear. Profit margins didn’t affect editorial decisions. The Geographic Channel didn’t have a veto. If someone from the Channel had appeared at a scheduling meeting and suggested a story be suppressed, it would have been the laugh of the week. “Are you serious? Are you nuts? Go away, we have work to do.”

    If the Mubarak story was spiked, the decision came from the boardroom, not from the editors. If this story was canned out of fear, the Geographic no longer exists. Shut the doors.

    This and the coy misinformation in the “Blood Ivory” story are the two most damning and disappointing elements of the current Geographic administration. It’s Come To Jesus Time, folks. Does the Geographic present the world as it is, or does it present the world as Big Money wants it to be? Inkfish like us don’t decide. People whose backgrounds and accomplishments and ethics have – presumably – placed them in a position of trust must decide. As we said in the 60’s, “Not to decide is to decide.”

    • Jan,

      Yes, I’m sure you’re right — bribery is the way Old Archaeology works. But it’s not simply about archaeology, especially in Egypt. Zahi Hawass was not only the gatekeeper to pyramids, mummies, and gold; he was the caretaker and champion of Pharaonic ideas and ideals that made ancient Egypt a world ppwer. It was a system built around a Strong Man who dominated a nation. And it’s a touchstone not simply for a bunch of academics, but also the inspiration for thugs like Mubarak. Like Ramses, Like Me. To enable hoodlums like this — and to underwrite their activities with Society funds — well, it’s a bad idea. In many ways, archaeology and history are not simply the study of Way Back When as much as the study of Right Now.

      Re: the Chris Hedges’ story about Egypt, and way it was allegedly killed because the TV folks were worried about blowback — I have a hunch there will always be plausible deniability for Chris Johns. Even if someone produces a smoking gun — an email, say, from someone in TV to Chris Johns in which the blowback argument is put forth — it won’t be conclusive. Chris can always insist that the story was killed for unrelated reasons. … That said, I’ll have more on the Chris Hedges’ story next week.

  • Robert Bauval, author
  • Tweets R Us

    Crazy! What a sad story all around – for Egypt, for NGS – ugh.

    Jan- it says National Geographic Television – NOT the channel. NGT is the production arm of NG, not associated with the channel nor with FOX . in 2003, the channel was 2 years old and NGT was making a lot for PBS,- I know you guys want to link everything back to Murdoch -but this one requires a bit more thought than simple accusation. You should know better as a journalist. I’m nNot saying the request didn’t come through the channel, but in 2003, its definitely suspect and we shouldn’t sling comments without knowing more. I, as a critical thinker, would like to know more and ask more questions.

    Question, Alan – what’s the purpose of copying all these twitter comments? Most of them were RT or just a headline of the article – all it did was take up space on your page. Twitter is the only way messages spread, do you get a kickback for promoting their service so much? You should if you aren’t!

    • Tweets R Us

      i shouldn’t post from a phone. Twitter *isn’t* the only way messages spread…

    • You’re absolutely right re: the distinction between the Channel & NGT. They’re not the same thing, at least nominally. That said, the link between them is far tighter today than it was back in 2005, when Chris Hedges’ Egypt story was killed.

      Also, I think it’s fair to say that access to Egyptian antiquities was, and remains an issue for the entire Society — NGM, TV (production & the Channel), Mission programs, et al. I don’t think that NGS necessarily needs to remain reliant on that access, although John Fahey apparently does.

      Re: Twitter — I thought the list of people who RT’d the story was interesting because there were a lot of mainstream journalists from major media outlets who saw & shared the article. Yes, there are other ways stories spread, but Twitter provided an interesting window on who was seeing this news item about NGS & the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

  • Robert Bauval, author

    Zahi Hawass and National Geography ‘Bribery’ controversy.
    Two days ago, On the 28 October, The Independent newspaper ran a story with the heading “US investigates National Geographic over ‘corrupt payments’ to Egypt’s keeper of antiquities”, by David Usborne, the NY Editor of The Independent. Oddly this story is not reported in any other International or National newspaper, as far as I… can make out, although many internet sites circulated it as one would expect. It is not clear what was the original source of this story, but it was first circulated by VOCATIV, the global network news (see below). What cannot be confirmed is whether or not such an investigation by the US Department of Justice (USDOJ) is ongoing. I find it odd, to say the least, that a serious noewpaper such as The Independent, would run a story like that on rumours. But such things do happen sometimes in the media. As far as I can make out, Hawass was/is indeed nominated Explorer-in-Residence in early 2002 by National Geographic, with a yearly stipend thought to be $ 200,000. This nomination coinciding with his nomination as Chairman of the Supreme Council of antiquities (SCA, now a Ministry) that same year. It was also in September 2002 that National Geographic Channel was given the exclusive rights to produce the LIVE “Secret Chamber Revealed” concerning the ‘door’ in the Great Pyramid, which was aired on 17 September 2002 to a world audience. If National Geographic did get ‘preferential treatment’ and ‘exclusivity’ for this Live TV show (as well as others later on), then this could be regarded as a breach of the the USDIJ’s “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 (FCPA). Only the USDOJ can confirm or deny whether such an investigation is, indeed, ongoing.

    My two-cents worth on this matter: Although, as everyone in Egypt knows, it was common practice during the old Mubarak regime for government official to accept ‘gifts’ in exchange for ‘favouratism’ and/or services rendered, that was/is definitely not the case in the USA, where very strict laws prevent such unorthodox activities in business deals, whether in the USA or abroad. The USDOJ/FCPA make this perfectly clear. The big question is whether the USDOJ will or will not investigate this case.

    It was VOCATIV who originally published on 27 October an article reporting the alleged bribery investigation conducted by the US Department of Justice (USDOJ) on the cont…racts/deals between Hawass and National Geographic. This article was then picked up by The Independent on 28 Oct. (scroll down here below)
    The source (Vocativ) seem to be heavyweights in the deep information data collection, their founder being Mati Kochavi, an Israeli-American very high profile businessman who is also founder of AGT International, a multibillion dollars Global Security Company. Vocativ seem to be pretty sure of the veracity of their information as reported in their article.

    • Robert – Thanks for your messages. Yes, Vocativ was the original source of the story. And I share your concern about the story’s veracity — that is: how do we really know that the U.S. Dept of Justice is actually investigating NGS for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act? The story was picked up the The Independent, but it hasn’t appeared elsewhere, best I can tell.

      Numerous people have pointed out that bribery is just the cost of doing business in the world of Old Archaeology, and that might be true. But as I point out to Jan Adkins (see comments elsewhere on this thread), I no longer think it’s a legitimate excuse. To enable, empower, and enrich Zahi Hawass was to strengthen a system that begins with the Pharoanic ideals of Egypt’s past and continues through the thuggish regime of Mubarak & his sycophants, including Zahi. For Editor Chris Johns to kills Chris Hedges story about Mubarak’s Egypt is to say, in effect: Our Society cares more about mummies, pyramids, and gold than we care about freedom, civil society, and democracy. As a society — and as a Society — that’s a place we do not want to be.

  • Robert Bauval, author

    THE MAKING AND BREAKING OF THE “REAL” INDIANA JONES
    Zahi Hawass: From Mass Media to Massive Legal Mess

    It probably all started around 1996 when, according to Zahi Hawass (Egypt’s disgraced ex-Minister of Antiquities), he befriended Terry Garcia, then assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, U.S. Department of Commerce, and deputy administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmosph…eric Administration (NOAA). At that time Hawass was General Director of Antiquities for the Giza Pyramids, Saqqara, and Bahariya, and was also director of two explorations at Giza, the so-called “Osiris shaft” and the ancient harbor in front of the Sphinx. Could it have been then that Terry Garcia set his mind to use the full weight of TV media to create a “real Indiana Jones” of Zahi Hawass, a sort of live brand product complete with Stetson hat and denim shirt?

    1999: Terry Garcia joined National Geographic as executive vice president for Mission Programs and president of Licensing for the National Geographic Society. He also was responsible for the Society’s Explorers-in-Residence and Emerging Explorers programs. It would seem that the main specialty of Garcia was promotion of ‘brands’ of various products linked to the Society.

    January 2001: The Newly created National Geographic Channel, owned in majority by Ruport Murdoch’s Fox Cable TV, was launched in the USA.

    July 2001: Terry Garcia appointed Zahi Hawass as one of National Geographic Society’s Explorer-in-Residence (later to be elevated to Explorer-in-Residence Emeritus). This apparently came with a yearly stipend of $ 80,000 to $200,000.

    January 2002: (ex) President Mubarak appointed Zahi Hawass as Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. This made Hawass, in effect, the controller of all antiquities in Egypt.

    5th August 2002: National Geographic Channel began one of the most ambitious promotional campaigns for a LIVE show to be aired internationally on 17 September 2002: “SECRET CHAMBER REVEALED, starring Zahi Hawass. This entailed an attempt for a ‘live’ opening of a small door discovered in 1993 at the end of a long narrow shaft inside the Great Pyramid. A huge media hype campaign followed, with various promotion events organized for Zahi Hawass to hype the show.
    In the course of the next few years Hawass arranged several other ‘discoveries’ to be aired ‘live’ by National Geographic Channel.

    2005: Hawass signed a deal with National Geographic for a World Exhibition of the King Tutankhamun treasures.

    But it all came to an abrupt end, however, with the outbreak of the 25 January 2001 Revolution in Egypt and the fall of Zahi Hawass in July 2011.

    27 October 2013: the newly created VOCATIV ‘Deep Net’ social news Network (founded by Mati Kochavi, a high profile Israeli-American businessman) published an article with a photograph of Zahi Hawass under the banner title: “Tut Tut: Did Nat Geo Bribe Egypt’s Famed Indiana Jones? Exclusive: US prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation of the National Geographic Society.”

    The saga goes on…

    • The saga goes on, indeed. Thanks very much for this timeline, Robert. It’s raises as many questions as it answers — questions I hope to address in the not-to-distant future.

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