The Pro Vaxx Business That Is Banking Billions, Whilst Knowingly Killing and Injuring Millions, Takes a Cheap Shot at the Courageous Truthers, Who Try and Fund Their Not for Profit Lifesaving Causes To Keep Fighting for Human Freedoms
By Rachael Dexter, Simone Fox Koob and David Estcourt
The price of ‘freedom’: How anti-lockdown protest leaders make money from the movement
You can buy caps and t-shirts, pseudo-medical COVID treatments, even social media sites and legal advice - it’s all part of the deal when you are marching for freedom.
Mehmet Erhan was promised free legal assistance from Rebel News, who crowdfunded on the back of his story
When 40-year-old Adelaide father of four Mehmet Erhan missed a COVID test in October last year and was arrested at his home in the middle of the night by a group of armed police, key figures in the “freedom movement” pricked up their ears.
It was the perfect fodder for anti-government, anti-lockdown content to be shared on social media: alleged police brutality inflicted over a minor issue relating to a virus they claim is largely harmless.
Erhan, a former tradie who admits to a chequered past with the law, was arrested and charged with two counts of breaching a health order. Unable to access legal aid due to his ownership of an apartment – even though he was 12 months behind in repayments – he started an online crowd-fund to help cover his legal costs.
But even after he recorded an online interview with Monica Smit, the founder of Australia’s largest anti-lockdown group, Reignite Democracy Australia, Erhan’s appeal raised only $1600 of the $7000 he claims he needed. Then another arm of the anti-lockdown movement took up his cause.
“Someone advised me to get in contact with Rebel News because they fund lawyers for this sort of thing,” Erhan says.
What followed left Erhan feeling worse. Canada-based right-wing commentary website Rebel News, the employer of Australian “correspondent” Avi Yemini, a former Israel Defence Forces member turned activist, required him to sign a contract with them, then asked its hundreds of thousands of online supporters to help fund the legal fight. This was to be paid into Rebel News’ “Fight the Fines” project fund, not Erhan’s own GoFundMe account.
Then, after a dispute over legal representation, Rebel News cut ties. They say they exercised their rights under the contract to discontinue the relationship as Erhan had “routinely switched lawyers” and not acted in good faith.
Almost six months later, Erhan’s case remains on the Rebel News website. He still has no idea how much was raised for his cause, nor where it now is. He is facing a court case with $10,000 in bills and no lawyer.
As tens of thousands of committed protesters take to the streets weekly to protest vaccine mandates, COVID-19 restrictions and Victoria’s pandemic legislation, the so-called “freedom” movement has given rise to a core group of self-styled leaders who have developed large, ardent and growing followings online.
With this has come an opportunity to make money. Large sums are being donated to crowdfunding for legal cases such as Erhan’s, with little transparency or scrutiny. Many of the self-styled leaders solicit donations. Merchandise including “freedom” clothing lines, wellness products and sketchy COVID-19 cures are being spruiked to their many followers.
There is no credible estimate in Australia about how much money is flowing to the protest movement leaders, but globally the numbers are significant. A report from the Washington DC-based Centre for Countering Digital Hate found anti-vaxxers now enjoy a following online of 58 million people world-wide.
“Two years ago these groups had zero standing, zero credibility. They were laughed at. But they’ve been able to turn COVID into a really lucrative profit-making exercise,” says Deakin University senior research fellow and extremism researcher Josh Roose.
“There’s a small core of people who are really driving this, who are really seeking to exploit fear.”
Prior to the pandemic, Melbourne man Matt Lawson worked as a freelance photographer, specialising in weddings, family portraits and rural Australian landscapes. More recently, he has been offering this service in a very different way. The staunch anti-lockdown activist and conspiracy theorist has almost 17,000 followers on encrypted messaging app Telegram, the favourite meeting place of Australia’s “freedom” protesters, to whom he recently offered a “non-discriminatory” Santa photo service for the unvaccinated.
In the advertisement, Lawson posted his bank details and asked for donations. All funds, he promised, would go towards legal fees he says he will incur after being charged and convicted for incitement and fined $1500 after organising a gathering during lockdown. Nowhere is it reported how much he has raised.
“I’m a photographer, so it was just me doing my regular job. Very different to any other people asking for money for clothing,” he told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. “I didn’t make close to enough money to cover my charges.”
Others look to their followers to buy products and services. Widely followed conspiracy theorist David Oneeglio and anti-vaccine activist Tom Barnett released a clothing line with T-shirts for toddlers emblazoned with the phrase “DO NOT INJECT” and “PUREBLOOD”. They sell caps that say “Zombie Slayer” and a necklace engraved with “I am essential”.
Jewellery on sale from All Rights Reserved, a clothing line started by protest movement leader Dave Oneeglio, and “holistic health practitioner” Tom Barnett.
The pair did not respond to requests for comment, but Oneeglio wrote recently on his Telegram channel that he had started the small business to “get the message out there and raise funds to produce better quality content” and provide “alternative media”.
“It also helps with the rent,” he wrote. “I’m not asking for donations or handouts.”
Fanos Panayides, a former reality TV contestant and now a prominent anti-lockdown activist, has a clothing line with the phrase “The media is the real virus”. He did not respond to questions about his merchandise.
Reignite Democracy Australia also sells “freedom fighter” clothing, alongside a raft of other paid services. Their business directory invites Australian businesses to pay $3.30 per month or $29 per year to have their names in a database of consumers looking for venues which don’t “discriminate based on medical status”. Over 400 businesses have already signed up.
“Freedom” protester Fanos Panayides has been selling clothing with the slogan: “The media is the real virus. We all know it!”
Then there are Reignite Democracy’s social membership plans, providing a “troll-free”, “censorship-free social platform” which can be purchased monthly for $5.50 or $44 for an annual membership. This has become important to the organisation after Facebook earlier this month permanently shut down at least eight different pages run by them for breaching its misinformation and harm policies.
The Reignite Democracy “Truth Truck”, which travels around Melbourne with large billboards criticising the state government, has its own fundraiser. RDA regularly does “media blitz fundraisers”, which raised more than $6000 in March and $20,000 in May, money they say is used to print flyers, placards, stickers and banners, as well as for billboards and ads on social media.
“We publish all invoices spent from this campaign on the Fundraiser Page,” says the site, but a link to this page of invoices was broken(it was reinstated after queries from The Age and Herald). The group say they keep no profits, with all donations going back into the organisation, and those who donate get daily emails with updates of their work.
“Monica [Smit]’s wage is $500 per week,” Reignite Democracy said in a statement. “Her staff make more money than she does. RDA now has 12 staff and several contractors. Every cent received is spent on running the [organisation]. We tried to register as a [not-for-profit] but because of our political work, we were unable to. Although we are a Pty Ltd [company], we are not for profit in practise.”
Reignite Democracy leader Monica Smit says some are taking advantage of the ‘freedom’ movement to make money
Smit said she believed it was not ethical to make money from the “freedom” movement. “There are scams out there making money off vulnerable and desperate people and I think that is completely wrong,” she said. “We are not making any profit, so we don’t fall into that category. We use all revenue to pay for the costs of running the organisation. Lawyers, staff, website and app maintenance, film production and editing and marketing material all needs to be paid for.
“If the people of Australia didn’t see a need for our services, they wouldn’t financially support us.”
Beyond the more established organisations, almost all the prominent figures within the movement – many of whom spread dangerous misinformation about vaccines – have websites and channels on Telegram, providing spaces for them not only to spruik their videos and online content but also to ask for donations either by direct bank deposit, PayPal or in cryptocurrency. There is little transparency around how this money is used.
Online platforms are also taking a cut, according to a report released last year by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate in the US, which found the anti-vaccination movement’s following is estimated to be worth up to $1 billion in annual revenue for social media platforms, income primarily generated by advertisers.
“Full-time anti-vax campaigners doubled their reach by broadcasting their message on YouTube channels that peddle conspiracy theories and false cures,” wrote the US group’s chief executive, Imran Ahmed. “In turn, these campaigners lend their brand and audience of activists to a thriving industry of anti-vax entrepreneurs using Facebook as a shopfront.”
Protesters opposed to the pandemic legislation occupy the steps of Victorian parliament in November
Roose says some anti-vaxxers are making money out of the wellness industry – promoting products seen as alternatives to the vaccine, immune system boosters, hydroxychloroquine and vitamin C supplements – and others are profiting by building up their social media presence.
“People are exploiting people’s legitimate fear,” he said. “The committed anti-vaxxers are building up not only economic profit but are profiting in terms of the momentum of their movement from spreading this disinformation.”
When Smit made headlines for her arrest on incitement charges several months ago, she crowdfunded $50,000 a day for her legal defence over the first five of her 22 days in prison, despite claiming she had pro bono lawyers.
She was granted bail in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court in early September after being charged with two counts of incitement over lockdown protests and three of breaching the Chief Health Officer’s directions, but did not leave prison after refusing to sign a bail consent form.
The fundraiser page has since been taken down, but archived versions show that by late September the tally was at more than $300,000. The site said the money would be used if a QC was needed. Smit challenged the strict bail conditions sought by Victoria Police and won. Smit told The Age and Herald that Reignite Democracy regularly communicates with those who contributed to her legal fund and has offered refunds to those who donated after they received more money than they needed.
“Out of over 3000 contributors, only 20 people opted for a refund, which we processed,” she said.
A handful of lawyers have put themselves forward as advocates for the movement. Some have shared medical misinformation online and fuelled anxieties about vaccine mandates. Between them, they have collected more than $1 million in legal funds for challenges which have changed neither the approach nor the laws of state or federal jurisdictions.
Two lawyers active in anti-mandate lawsuits, Serene Teffaha and Nathan Buckley, have had their licences to practise law suspended by state watchdogs. They have clashed with legal watchdogs, courts and judges, and have at times blurred the line between legal advocacy and activism.
A selfie of Nathan Buckley from the G&B Lawyers Facebook page
Buckley, the principal of NSW’s G&B Lawyers, raised more than $575,000 in crowdfunding to challenge various COVID-19 public health orders, including vaccine mandates. In October, when his client lost the challenge to the NSW public health orders which required vaccination against COVID-19 in certain industries, G&B Lawyers posted: “Justice [Robert] Beech-Jones today said that no one in NSW has any rights. No one has a right to bodily integrity. He basically said it is OK to kill anyone you like.”
Buckley has filed proceedings against the NSW Law Society challenging the suspension of his practising certificate. He declined to comment.
In April, Teffaha, who filed a class action lawsuit over the mandatory coronavirus lockdown of nine public housing towers in Melbourne, had her licence cancelled by Victoria’s Legal Services Board, though it did not specify why. The Family Court sent a letter to the Victorian watchdog in January about Teffaha’s conduct in a family law case when a judge took the unusual step of restraining Teffaha from representing her own client.
Disqualified lawyer Serene Teffaha speaks out against coronavirus restrictions
“We will keep calling them all out until there’s a revolution on the streets and if we need to shed blood for peace, then so be it,” Teffaha said during a rally.
Court documents show Teffaha, who is involved with lobby group People for Safe Vaccines, raised more than $650,000 for a national class action which at times has purported to represent people affected by any form of detention, mandatory vaccination, business closures, residential aged care isolation, cross-border rules, contact tracing, compulsory testing and masks.
She declined to answer detailed questions, saying: “I have never crowdfunded or fundraised. Everything was in a trust account that was stolen by the government. Every ‘i’ was dotted and ‘t’ crossed.”
Monash Law School associate dean Luke Beck says crowdfunding plays a legitimate role in a lot of public interest litigation such as climate change class actions and was “an important access-to-justice legal mechanism given the very high cost of court cases”. Anti-vaxxers “genuinely believe what they’re doing is in the public interest,” he says, adding that we should not ban crowdfunding “just for challenges you politically disagree with”.
However, he notes that, under law, money donated for a particular purpose “can only be used for that purpose, so people donating money need to be clear about whether they’re giving money for a particular purpose or whether they’re just handing money over as a gift for people to do whatever they want with it”.
Protest against the Pandemic Bill in Melbourne, Saturday, November 27, 2021
Lawyers are also bound by rules that say they should only bring cases to court which have a reasonable prospect of success. Cases which ask courts to interpret an area of law that has already been ruled upon, such as the constitutionality of vaccine mandates, may breach that.
Victorian Legal Services Board commissioner Fiona McLeay says Victorian lawyers should think carefully about publicly encouraging the community to pursue cases or actions that do not have merit or are unlikely to succeed at court.
“A balance needs to be struck with ensuring the matter is run with the best interests of the clients. If a case has very little chance of success this needs to be disclosed,” she says.
Last week, the Supreme Court tossed out both class actions brought on behalf of Victorian businesses and workers.
Finding new sources
Despite the passage of the Victorian government’s pandemic bill, the so-called “freedom” movement is not losing steam. Conversations in its channels have shifted to the vaccination of children.
“They are coming for the kids,” one prominent leader said this week. “The war on children is here.”
Some of Australia’s most prominent “freedom” activists plan to stand for election alongside former Liberal MP Craig Kelly as candidates for Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party, which would give them access to a virtually bottomless election war chest. In the last election, Palmer donated more than $80 million to his party in a bid for federal parliament, with much of the money splashed on advertising campaigns across newspapers (including The Age and the Herald), billboards and other media.
And a collection of people from many groups and backgrounds are continuing to turn up to the now-weekly rallies. Dr Vivian Gerrand, a research fellow at think tank the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies, has been researching the radicalisation happening within anti-vaccination groups and the “militant wellness” community and says people from Left and Right were united by strong anti-authoritarianism; they distrust institutions, pharmaceutical companies and government, and many have placed their trust in health and wellness influencers who were “not necessarily reliable”.
Gerrand says the influencers are trying to present themselves as offering an alternative, but are part of the same capitalist system they criticise.
“I think there are some that really are cynically profiting and will do anything to make a buck. But there are probably others that really do believe in these things that they’re selling and peddling.” Others, though, were likely to be “exploiting that for personal gain”.
When Mehmet Erhan was first arrested and came into the orbit of Rebel News and Avi Yemini, he felt the full force of support from a 100,000-strong online community. Rebel published a story online, then an April 1 video calling for donations to pay for a lawyer, who Ehran’s contract insisted he must use.
But then it ended. Mani Shishineh, the solicitor who represented Erhan while he was under the contract he’d signed with Rebel News, told The Age and Herald he had filed an application to vary Erhan’s bail conditions but the court had not been prepared to list the matter as quickly as Erhan needed. Shishineh claims Erhan instructed another solicitor, which meant it was “only appropriate and ethical for us to withdraw”.
Alt-right agitator Avi Yemini is employed by the Canadian website Rebel News
Erhan denies hiring another lawyer while under contract with Rebel, saying he needed a bail variation quickly and had contacted the court himself.
In a detailed statement, Rebel News founder Ezra Levant said Erhan had violated the contract by hiring a lawyer not chosen by them, and through his “erratic conduct”. Rebel News say they agreed to pay for a second lawyer, even wiring the solicitor money, but this was cancelled by Erhan, who said in an email to them he felt he had been “stuffed around”.
Rebel News’ Fight the Fines crowdfunding campaign has more than 2100 clients, said Levant, of whom several hundred have been successful. Most are pending prosecution. The project has been transferred to a registered Canadian charity and no Rebel News staff receive payment from it.
Levant said he didn’t believe donors were informed that Rebel News was no longer supporting Erhan’s case because it was not newsworthy.
Asked how much money Erhan’s case had raised for the Fight the Fines fund, he said the funds were “not disaggregated in that manner” and donations were not earmarked for any particular client.
“It is important that any funds raised are directed to legal fees and expenses — not for the personal profit of any client. The value of these contractual terms was borne out in Mehmet Erhan’s case, where his erratic conduct would have endangered the fiduciary integrity of the project,” he said.
Erhan’s story remains online. Donations for his case are still being directed to the Fight the Fines fund. Erhan has never been told how much money was donated. His trial will go ahead next year; he’s without a lawyer and has $10,000 in accumulated legal debts.
Erhan said he had initially been made to feel important, but had been given the cold shoulder while his story was still being used.
“They’ve collected money off me and they’ve left me out there to fend for myself.”