An anchorwoman for the Al Jazeera news channel in the Middle East on Wednesday sued the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates along with more than 20 others — including a Miami woman — accusing them of orchestrating a global social media campaign to destroy her reputation.
Ghada Oueiss claims in her defamation lawsuit filed in Miami federal court that they used Twitter and other social media tools to spread falsehoods about her because she has been critical of human rights abuses by the two Middle Eastern countries.
Oueiss’ suit accuses the two countries of recruiting American citizens to distribute pro-Saudi and pro-UAE positions while attacking their critics online. She also says both countries and their recruits hacked the TV journalist’s mobile phone to obtain information and images for personal attacks against her.
The TV journalist claims the social media campaign escalated after her mentor and friend, Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and fierce dissident of Saudi Arabia, was murdered two years ago in the Saudi Embassy in Turkey by a group reportedly under the direction of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. U.S. intelligence authorities confirmed his role in news reports.
“The hack and leak operation was directed and controlled by foreign actors who created an American infrastructure comprised of various U.S. citizens that worked in concert to viciously attack Ms. Oueiss,” the suit states, labeling the alleged social media recruits as “unregistered agents” of foreign governments.
Her attorneys, Daniel Rashbaum and Jeffrey Marcus, both former federal prosecutors in Miami, described Oueiss as a “champion for justice” and want a federal judge to issue an injunction to stop the alleged social media harassment of their client.
“She has brought this lawsuit to shine a light on the Saudi Arabia and the UAE regimes’ attempts to silence their critics and to hold those responsible for this smear campaign, including numerous Americans,” Rashbaum told the Miami Herald Wednesday.
The Saudi Arabia Embassy in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment. The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, whose crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, is listed as a defendant in the case, did not immediately respond to phone and email queries.
Oueiss, 44, who has worked for two decades as a journalist for Lebanese newspapers and the English-language news channel Al Jazeera, described the heightened personal assaults in an opinion piece earlier this year for The Washington Post. It was titled “I’m a female journalist in the Middle East. I won’t be silenced by online attacks.”
“Private photos of me in a swimsuit had been stolen from my phone and posted on Twitter with offensive, misogynistic and false claims that the photos were taken at the private residence of Al Jazeera Media Network’s Qatari chairman, Sheikh Hamad Bin Thamer Al-Thani,” Oueiss wrote in July. “I watched aghast as the number of retweets increased by the hundreds each minute. Within just a few hours, photos of me in a hot tub — some of them pixelated to make people believe, incorrectly, that I was nude — were tweeted more than 40,000 times.”
Among several Americans accused in the defamation case of being a recruit is Sharon Collins, of Miami, who has a Twitter account with the handle @305local. Collins, with 17,000 followers, has posted and retweeted commentary about U.S. politics, the Trump administration and Middle East topics, including Oueiss.
After Oueiss wrote her column for The Washington Post, Collins retweeted a post by another person that read: “Ghada Oueiss, a vile anti-Semite, who is spreading hatred, division, and incitement against Jews & Israel via Al Jazeera, has the nerve to claim journalistic professionalism and to play victim/hero.”
Collins, who said she is a Miami native, had no idea she was being sued by Oueiss.
In the new suit, Oueiss’ lawyers suggest Collins is an “unregistered foreign agent” and highlight that a year ago she traveled to Saudi Arabia — and the government and other pro-Saudi interests footed the bill. They also say she has collaborated on Twitter with other American “recruits” named in the defamation case.
Reached by the Herald, Collins called the suit’s accusations “absurd” and said the First Amendment allows her to speak her mind.
“I live in a free country,” Collins said Wednesday. “I don’t live in Qatar. … I’m allowed to do it. It’s like going after a CNN reporter or a Fox reporter if I don’t agree with what they’re saying.”
Collins rejected the suggestion that she was a “foreign agent” for Saudi Arabia or the UAE. “I am not a spy,” she said. “I challenge her to prove that.”
Collins, who declined to say what she does for a living, acknowledged that she visited the United Arab Emirates in April 2019 and Saudi Arabia that December because her Twitter followers encouraged her to see them.
“I have followers there,” said Collins, who denied the suit’s allegation that the Saudi government paid her way.
In addition to Collins, a second Floridian from Orlando is named as a defendant, as well as other Americans from California and Texas. There are also 20 John Does listed — all accused of collaborating in a “network” to promote Saudi Arabia and the UAE while discrediting the Al Jazeera TV anchor.
Other Middle Eastern defendants include Saudi government advisors, two state-owned Saudi TV stations and an Emirati cybersecurity company called DarkMatter.
“The breadth of the attack on Ms. Oueiss was massive,” her suit claims.