At first glance, EU Reporter looks like just another media outlet reporting from Brussels on the European Union.
The website publishes articles about the European Commission’s latest proposals. It offers analysis of global events, like last month’s United Nations report on climate change. It provides almost daily updates on the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the company’s promotional material tells a different story.
In a glitzy YouTube video with Queen’s “A Kind of Magic” as background music, EU Reporter — owned by Colin Stevens, a British former television executive who has plied his trade in the Brussels bubble of policymakers, journalists and lobbyists for two decades — pitches itself to prospective clients eager to gain traction within the EU’s halls of power.
“Our business model is to offer political parties, businesses, NGOs, industry associations, financial institutions and governments the opportunity to use EU Reporter to influence the European political decision-making process by sponsoring coverage and the placement of positive news stories and editorial comment related to them,” the narrator says. “Use EU Reporter to influence.”
Welcome to the murky world of EU lobbying dressed up as journalism.
Stevens doesn’t appear to have a particular agenda, or to work as a lobbyist. But his company has provided a number of companies and governments with a space to publish paid-for content as straight news articles without disclosing those connections.
With reporters accredited at European institutions like the Commission, and a “press club” where Stevens is president just a stone’s throw away from the Berlaymont building, EU Reporter is the most prominent example of a network of EU-focused websites portraying themselves as independent media organizations — while secretly facilitating political influence campaigns.
The publication’s clients include the Russian energy giant Lukoil, the Ukrainian state-owned nuclear energy company Energoatom, the American aircraft maker Boeing, the Chinese telecom giant Huawei and the Russian state nuclear energy company Rosatom, according to marketing material published on its website in February 2020 and Stevens’ separate confirmation to POLITICO.
“EU Reporter also collaborates closely with the huge diplomatic corps in Brussels [and] has at least two embassies as clients,” its marketing material reads.
The company isn’t alone in offering companies and governments a paid-for platform to promote their views to EU officials. Other Brussels-based outlets, including POLITICO, publish clearly labeled sponsored content from advertisers seeking to influence the powers-that-be.
But what sets EU Reporter apart is that it presents its coverage as straight news — with rarely an indication that a company or government paid for, or was associated with, the articles. When the publication’s articles touch on one of its clients, that coverage is frequently positive. In addition to undisclosed paid-for content, the site posts EU and corporate press releases, opinion articles from European lawmakers and original material, making it impossible for readers to determine who is behind the coverage.
One article, written by Stevens, praised Lukoil for its work on climate change. Another, by an anonymous “EU Reporter Correspondent,” trumpeted an order of 25 new Boeing airplanes. A third championed Huawei in a political stand-off in Belgium. None of these articles mentioned any commercial relationship between EU Reporter and the companies.
Stevens acknowledged to POLITICO that EU Reporter had run clients’ content without transparency disclaimers until January 2020. But he added that since then, all EU Reporter articles had included the name and source of the material, as well as if it was sponsored.
“It is absolutely untrue that our business model is to sell political lobbying masquerading as journalism,” said Stevens. “Our readers are politicians and influencers and in the same way as POLITICO, we market EU Reporter as a means of reaching that audience. Quite different to political lobbying.”
A POLITICO review of articles about the clients EU Reporter had listed on its site found only a handful that were clearly labeled as a “sponsored post,” including those by Huawei and Lukoil. There was also a sponsored post by the Azerbaijani government. The majority of the articles about the clients on the site, some that were word-for-word repetition from corporate press releases, ran with no disclaimers.
EU reporter does not list which embassies or governments are among its clients. But Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have both received extensive positive coverage on the site — raising questions about editorial standards and whether paid-for content is correctly labeled. Stevens denied that his site had offered these authoritarian regimes preferential treatment.
Kazakhstan’s top diplomat to the EU was given her own “ambassador’s corner” on the EU Reporter website — a 48-minute long video interview. The outlet has also run positive news articles from the Astana Times, an English-language newspaper with ties to the authoritarian regime. POLITICO could not categorically verify whether Kazakhstan’s government was an EU Reporter client, and Stevens declined to say who the site’s clients were.
Tori Macdonald — part journalist, part development executive at EU Reporter — traveled to the Central Asian country earlier this year, nominally as a foreign election monitor and reporter. The headline of her article for the publication stated that the elections had been “free and fair.” An associated video included an interview with Thierry Mariani, a French member of the European Parliament praising Kazakhstan’s democratic credentials.
That assessment stands in stark contrast to that of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an international body that oversees election integrity worldwide. It condemned Kazakhstan’s vote, saying there was a lack of competition among political parties and limited transparency on how voters had gone to the polls — criticism that did not make it into EU Reporter’s dispatches.
Stevens said that if he had seen the OSCE’s assessment of the election ahead of the article’s publication, he would most likely have changed the headline to “relatively free and fair.” Tori Macdonald did not respond to a request for comment.
EU Reporter’s practices do not break Belgian law and the site does not publish outright falsehoods about current affairs. Unlike in the United States, where people working on behalf of foreign governments must register their interests, no such requirements exist when it comes to entities lobbying EU institutions. There is no legal requirement to disclose that articles have been paid for.
Even if it doesn’t break the rules, the lack of openness is concerning, said Alexandre Alaphilippe, co-founder of the EU DisinfoLab, a Brussels-based nonprofit organization that tracks online influence campaigns. “The question which is very worrying here is, none of this is transparent,” he said “Why are we hiding the fact that this is paid content online?”
In response, Stevens categorically rejected claims that his site’s business model was to sell political lobbying under the guise of independent journalism. He added that EU Reporter was marketed to would-be clients as a way of engaging with Brussels-based policymakers, and that the outlet had never received criticism about its editorial credibility. None of its clients received favorable coverage on EU Reporter, he added.
“There are no accusations, this is just speculation on your part and perhaps others in POLITICO designed to smear EU Reporter,” Stevens said in an email.
Pay to play
When the financial services firm LGR Global wanted to promote its fledgling cryptocurrency — called Silk Road Coin, in honor of the historic connection between China and Europe — it turned to EU Reporter.
In a media partnership signed in March, 2020, LGR announced it was working with the Brussels media outlet “to publish project news in the global market.”
As an official “Belt and Road Initiative of China Media partner,” the cryptocurrency firm said, EU Reporter could promote LGR across the publication’s digital sites — as well as on the website of the Press Club Brussels Europe, where Stevens is president, and via the People’s Daily of China, with which the outlet had signed a content-sharing agreement in 2015. On its site, LGR listed EU Reporter as a media partner.
The services EU Reporter offers to clients are spelled out in detail within its marketing materials.
Packages range from companies and governments writing their own stories for the outlet to lengthy made-to-order subscriptions that include eight positive stories a month. Prices start at €1,000 for each sponsored article, with discounts available to those who buy in bulk — cheap compared with what most rival services offer in Brussels.
“A comprehensive media plan is … essential to successful internal and external political communication and reputation management,” the pitch concludes. EU Reporter claims its reach in Brussels rivals that of the New York Times, based on outside polling from Comres/Burson-Marsteller. But the latest figures, from 2020, place the outlet outside of the top 15 media organizations and social media platforms ranked as most influential with EU policymakers.
LGR’s media strategy does not appear to have worked as it hoped. Since Silk Road Coin launched early last year, the cryptocurrency has lost almost all its value. It currently trades at 0.00004 U.S. cents, based on figures from CoinRating, a website that tracks cryptocurrencies’ value.
The failure didn’t make it into EU Reporter’s coverage. Over the last year, LGR has appeared in at least 12 articles on everything from the potential for a digital euro to why cryptocurrencies are here to stay. In them, Silk Road Coin was portrayed as part of the same stable of cryptocurrencies as market leaders like Bitcoin. LGR’s founder, Ali Amirliravi, has been quoted at length, often with his image included prominently in articles.
“LGR Global says the Silk Road Coin offers a secure and controlled business environment that can revolutionize international commodity trade in a fast growing market,” Stevens wrote in May, in an article based on two studies published by LGR Global.
The cryptocurrency, too, promoted the articles on its own website. But at no point did EU Reporter disclose a relationship with the firm.
The Estonian-based financial firm did not respond to a request for comment. Stevens said that as a member of the Belt and Road News Network — a Chinese government-backed initiative — EU Reporter had written articles about LGR’s efforts to boost trade around Beijing’s flagship foreign policy push, known as the Belt and Road Initiative. He added that articles published by the Belt and Road News Network automatically appeared on EU Reporter, and there was an agreement between LGR and the site to call the outlet a media partner.
“No money has ever been paid by LGR Global to EU Reporter for coverage nor will be paid for coverage,” added Stevens.
Influence for sale
EU Reporter doesn’t just publish undisclosed paid content. It sprinkles its clients’ messaging among scores of often mundane news — often taken verbatim from EU institutions’ press releases or newswires like Reuters.
The blending of journalism and undisclosed lobbying appears to be intended to advance political or commercial interests, both within the Brussels bubble and to audiences back home, according to eight independent misinformation and open-source intelligence analysts who reviewed POLITICO’s findings.
Articles published on what portrays itself as a legitimate Brussels-based news site can lend credibility to efforts to promote the clients’ agendas domestically, particularly in countries without a functioning media, according to three of the analysts.
“It’s about showing a domestic audience that a legitimate organization in Brussels believes in what they are selling,” said Daniel Maki, intelligence lead at the think tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
EU Reporter also sometimes uses false names and profile images for article authors to bolster its small team.
On its sponsorship page, the outlet says because of a rise in people using “fake identities,” it now requires a copy of individuals’ passports or identity cards before they can be published on the website. But some of the journalists purportedly writing its articles do not exist. Henry St. George, for instance, writes on everything from Ukrainian politics to Europe’s gambling industry. Alex Ivanov is EU Reporter’s Moscow correspondent.
Both names are pseudonyms, their profile pictures are taken from stock-image marketplaces. No reference to these reporters exists online beyond the organization and its affiliates, according to a review of online photography stores and searches for these journalists’ independent work. Another byline, Owain Glyndŵr, topping a series of articles on Brexit, appears to be an homage to a medieval Welsh prince — a likely hat-tip to Stevens’ Cardiff roots.
In response, Stevens said that these bylines were pseudonyms for journalists who did not want to use their own names, either because they worked for other outlets or, in the case of Ivanov, concerns about his safety reporting from Moscow.
“The journalists themselves uploaded stock images, but once again, we stopped using these stock images some time ago,” said EU Reporter’s owner. An article by Ivanov in mid-August about Nord Stream II, the German-Russian energy project, had included the stock image, but it no longer appears alongside the content.
Recent changes in the EU’s lobbying landscape may contribute to the effectiveness of opaque lobbying practices by the clients of EU Reporter, according to Margarida Silva, a researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory.
In recent years, the EU has instituted a slew of voluntary measures aimed at increasing transparency around lobbying, including disclosing yearly figures on how much was spent to persuade policymakers. That has forced most mainstream companies to be more careful about how they peddle influence in Brussels. But it is precisely because clandestine campaigns have become less common that covert pay-for-play tactics can still slip under the radar.
“It could mean that it becomes quite influential if it’s no longer standard behavior,” said Silva. “People aren’t used to looking for this anymore. It’s hard to spot the tell-tale signs of what is a lobbying campaign, and what is not.”
‘The real facts’
EU Reporter’s editorial standards may be questionable. But what it publishes can make itself felt in the real world.
Days after a Russian-brokered ceasefire ended fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia in late 2020, Baku’s representative to the United Nations sent a letter to the secretary-general alleging that Armenia had relied on terrorists and foreign fighters during the months-long war. Among the evidence, it cited were articles published in EU Reporter.
In one article, written while the conflict was ongoing, the site accused Armenia of transporting Turkish fighters from Syria to train the country’s militia. In another, it criticized Western media reports that accused Azerbaijan, not Armenia, of relying on foreign militants.
“The press needs to consistently present the real facts without bias, so that the truth of this war can be told for posterity,” reads the article under the headline “War in Karabakh: How fake news appears on Western media.”
Three Azerbaijani experts told POLITICO that allegations of foreign fighters siding with Armenia during the conflict did not match the reality on the ground, and that EU Reporter’s coverage of the conflict skewed significantly toward Baku’s perspective.
“I’ve never heard anything about that,” said Matthew Bryza, a former United States ambassador to Azerbaijan and current nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, when asked about the Turkish fighters working with Armenia. “The pro-Azerbaijan propaganda is not credible.”
POLITICO was not able to confirm whether Azerbaijan had paid for the favorable coverage in EU Reporter. Stevens said that his site retains full independence, that it had been even-handed in its treatment of Azerbaijan and that all articles were labeled with an author’s name.
“EU Reporter is not prepared to discuss who are its clients and what are its finances,” he added.
Still, the outlet and Baku have ties that date back almost a decade.
In 2012, one of the country’s state news agencies called the site “the only true independent publication dedicated to European Union affairs” after Stevens, EU Reporter’s owner, criticized Brussels’ handling of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
In 2017, EU Reporter also interviewed Polad Bülbüloğlu, Azerbaijan’s candidate to run UNESCO, the U.N. agency, ending the article with: “It is hard to imagine any other candidate for the post of director-general of UNESCO being able to offer such a wide range of skills.” Bülbüloğlu withdrew his candidacy after getting a handful of votes in the election’s first round.
Tale Heydarov, the founder of the European Azerbaijan Society and son of a prominent Azerbaijani minister, has also written multiple articles for EU Reporter that were effusive in their praise for Baku.
“Any embittered sentiment in Azerbaijan is in direct response to the aggressive and people displacing policies of Armenia over the last thirty years in their pursuit of a ‘Greater Armenia,’” he wrote days after the ceasefire that ended last year’s war was signed. “This must end.”
Part of the bubble
EU Reporter does not operate in a vacuum. Stevens’ operations have relied on politicians, diplomats and policymakers from within the Brussels bubble and beyond who have provided them with content — and, unwittingly, a veneer of legitimacy.
The site has interviewed and run opinion articles from senior EU officials. In 2018, now-former Romanian MEP Norica Nicolai — a vice chair of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe political group — was asked about about legal changes in the Eastern European country that may have undermined the local judiciary.
In 2020, Mariani, the French MEP, was quoted in EU Reporter in praise of Uzbekistan and its close ties to the EU, while in early 2021, he also appeared in the site’s fawning coverage of the Kazakh elections. The Parliament blacklisted the far-right lawmaker and seven other MEPs this summer from participating in international election observation trips after he travelled to Astana and another vote in Russia-occupied Crimea. Mariani did not respond to a request for comment.
And in August, Croatian MEP Ivan Vilibor Sinčić wrote an opinion article for EU Reporter, titled “MEPs raise objections to corona fascism” that promoted unsubstantiated claims that COVID-19 protection efforts like wearing masks and vaccines had no effect on combatting the global pandemic. Sinčić said he had sent his views to both the public and media, in general. “Anyone can take any of my videos, articles or speeches and publish them,” he added.
For Alaphilippe, the cofounder of the EU Disinfo Lab, the association between EU policymakers and undisclosed lobbying efforts — taking place over the course of years, with little, if any, blowback — represents a cautionary tale of how influence can sometimes make itself felt in the Brussels bubble.
“Brussels is a city with so many interests,” he said. “It’s still relatively easy to do this sort of thing … Everyone in Brussels should be a lot more cautious.”
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