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Archive for December 2009

New statement from Amnesty: “There were 15 reported deaths”

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The day after the BBC backed down in the face of legal threats from Trafigura over their claim that the company’s waste caused deaths…

From Amnesty International

In August 2006, toxic waste was brought to Abidjan on board the ship Probo Koala, which had been chartered by oil-trading company, Trafigura.

This waste was then dumped in various locations around the city, causing a human rights tragedy. More than 100,000 people sought medical attention for a range of health problems and there were 15 reported deaths.

On 23 September 2009, the High Court of England and Wales approved a $45 million settlement between nearly 30,000 victims of the toxic waste dumping and Trafigura.

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Written by Richard Wilson

December 19, 2009 at 9:21 am

Index and PEN condemn BBC climbdown

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From Index on Censorship

Index on Censorship and English PEN today have expressed dismay that the BBC has conceded the libel action brought by toxic waste shippers Trafigura in the High Court. We believe this is a case of such high public interest that it was incumbent upon a public sector broadcaster like the BBC to have held their ground in order to test in a Court of law the truth of the BBC’s report or determine whether a vindication of Trafigura was deserved.

The case was brought by Trafigura after the BBC claimed in its Newsnight programme of 13 May 2009 that Trafigura had caused deaths by being involved in the dumping of toxic waste in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur Prof Okechukwu Ibeanu concluded in a report on 3 September 2009 that:

“On the basis of the above considerations and taking into account the immediate impact on public health and the proximity of some of the dumping sites to areas where affected populations reside, the Special Rapporteur considers that there seems to be strong prima facie evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping of the waste from the Probo Koala.”

Read here

Trafigura has paid out $200 million to the government of the Ivory Coast, and in London settled for £30 million a joint action made by 31,000 Ivorians.

But the BBC has now apparently conceded that the toxic waste dumped by the Probo Koala did not cause deaths, serious or long-term injuries and retracted their Newsnight piece in full and removed all reports from their web site.

English PEN and Index on Censorship believe that costs were a major factor behind the BBC’s decision. According to a leading media lawyer, Mark Stephens of FSI, the cost of such a case would have been in excess of £3 million. In its statement the BBC said:

“The BBC withdraws the allegation that deaths, miscarriages or serious or long-term injuries were caused by the waste and apologises to Trafigura for having claimed otherwise.”

John Kampfner, CEO of Index on Censorship said:

“Sadly, the BBC has once again buckled in the face of authority or wealthy corporate interests. It has cut a secret deal. This is a black day for British journalism and once more strengthens our resolve to reform our unjust libel laws.”

Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, said:

“Forced to choose between a responsible broadcaster and an oil company which shipped hundreds of tons of toxic waste to a developing country, English libel law has once again allowed the wrong side to claim victory. The law is an ass and needs urgent reform.”

Written by Richard Wilson

December 17, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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UK’s dysfunctional libel system strikes again? Newsnight feature on Trafigura disappears from BBC website

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UPDATE – The censored Newsnight feature on Trafigura may have disappeared from the BBC website, but it’s now all over Youtube…

The BBC lawyers may have caved, but you can still defy Trafigura – click here to find out how!

See also: Democracy under attack – Carter-Ruck persuades Commons Speaker that courts *can* ban the reporting of Parliament

In May, the BBC ran a feature on the oil company Trafigura, alleging “dirty tricks” over the dumping of toxic waste in the ivory coast. Shortly afterwards, Trafigura announced that they were sueing the BBC for libel.

The case has received very little media attention – a sign, perhaps, of the ongoing chill that Trafigura is managing to cast over the UK media – but it was mentioned again in this Guardian piece last month.

Until very recently, the Newsnight feature was freely available on the BBC’s website – but now it seems to have disappeared. It’s currently still available via Google cache, which indicates that it was on the site as late as lunchtime yesterday. Could of course just be a technical problem but it does look somewhat odd…

UPDATE 11/12/09 – The story has now been missing from the website for more than 24 hours – it’s starting to look more and more likely that  the piece has been spiked, and that the BBC – that most British of institutions – may now have become the latest victim of our country’s “rogue state” libel laws. In an ironic twist, it seems that the BBC’s lawyers chose international Human Rights Day as the moment to cave in to this attack on freedom of expression.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 10, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Posted in Censorship

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Libel reform campaign launches in Parliament

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Time to reign in the rogue libel outfits?

I was gutted to be missing this event due to ongoing winter lurgee – but delighted to see that Malcolm Grant, provost of my old college UCL, was the first university head to sign up to the campaign:

From Times Higher Education

A university leader has thrown his weight behind a campaign to reform England’s libel laws amid growing concern about so-called “libel tourism” and its impact on academia.

Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London and a trained lawyer, told Times Higher Education that the current laws were having an impact beyond Fleet Street and were stifling scientific debate and academic freedom.

“It is fundamental and critically important that the threat of libel law be lifted from scientific dispute,” he said, describing it as “quite chilling” that the laws were being used to threaten scholars with heavy financial penalties for making simple points about science.

Professor Grant is joining representatives from science, journalism, publishing and the literary sector this week to launch a new petition for libel-law reform, organised by the charity Sense About Science, the free-speech organisation Index on Censorship and English PEN, which represents authors.

He said: “There are not many vice-chancellors who are lawyers, and I am heading up a very strong science university, so I think it is important to be involved.”

The petition calls for “major reforms” of the English libel laws, saying they “inhibit debate” and “stifle free expression”.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 10, 2009 at 10:52 am

Posted in Censorship

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Democracy under attack – Carter-Ruck persuades Commons Speaker that courts *can* ban the reporting of Parliament

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Can anyone Stop the Ruck?

When, following the recent fiasco around Trafigura, I saw Carter-Ruck partner Andrew Stephenson at a Parliamentary committee meeting, he seemed utterly unrepentant.

Carter Ruck’s attempt, on behalf of Trafigura, to ban the media from reporting a question in the British Parliament, had triggered calls for the company’s Directors to be dragged to the bar of the House of Commons and formally reprimanded. Justice Minister Bridget Prentice had reiterated that the 1688/9 Bill of Rights gave the media an absolute privelege to cover the proceedings of Parliament, and that this was essential for the effective functioning of our democracy.

In seeking to explain his firm’s behaviour to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, Stephenson certainly appeared defensive, but he didn’t seem in the least bit sorry. He did, though, seem keen to reassure us that the injunction secured by his company on Trafigura’s behalf had been intended merely as an interim holding measure, and that the original purpose had never been to gag the reporting of Parliament.

So it seems very surprising to read in today’s Sunday Times that Stephenson appears to have gone out of his way to persuade the Commons authorities that the law does, after all, allow for the gagging of Parliamentary procedure:

In a submission to a Commons select committee, Carter-Ruck, a law firm that specialises in libel, argues that newspapers and publishers would be in contempt of court if they published parliamentary questions, answers or debates that fell under super-injunctions.

Advisers to John Bercow, the Speaker, are understood to have informed the culture, media and sport committee that Carter-Ruck’s position is correct. MPs regard the position as a serious threat to free speech and the proper functioning of democracy.

Super-injunctions — under which even reporting the existence of the injunction is banned — are increasingly being used to stop the media publishing information. MPs are now concerned that they threaten the media’s right to report what MPs can freely say in parliament, a privilege affirmed in the Parliamentary Papers Act of 1840…

At the time of the disagreement, Bridget Prentice, the justice minister, said Carter-Ruck was wrong to claim super-injunctions applied to the reporting of parliamentary proceedings.

However, in a submission to the culture committee published last week, Andrew Stephenson, a senior partner at the firm, said the minister was under a “misapprehension”.

He said that while MPs were guaranteed the right to free speech under the 1688 Bill of Rights within the House of Commons, the reporting of parliament remained subject to court orders.

The Speaker’s counsel declined to comment, but is understood to agree with Stephenson’s assessment.

Thus it appears, after all, that Parliamentary democracy is still under attack, and that Carter-Ruck may be making headway in their attempt to overturn a centuries-old democratic freedom.

What I think this demonstrates, again, is that Carter-Ruck is not just an ordinary law firm, doing what ordinary law firms do. They are actively engaged in lobbying the government to curtail our liberties in the interests of their clients. They are behaving, in other words, like a right-wing activist group.

Presumably if the goverment takes this issue seriously enough, they will table emergency legislation which makes the absolute right to report Parliament fully explicit. In the meantime, judges could ensure that any secret injuction they do grant includes a statement spelling out that the measure does not apply to the reporting of Parliament.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, there’s also a pretty clear-cut ethical case for (peaceful, legal) direct political action against Carter-Ruck. The idea that a lawyer – or indeed any other worker – should be exempted from the moral consequences of their professional choices is, in my view, a self-serving myth.

Lawyers who seek to apply an unjust law – be that the law that jailed Oscar Wilde or the laws being used today to suppress freedom of speech – don’t evade moral accountability simply by hiding behind the fact that what they’re doing is ‘legal’. I can’t help but wonder if we might have avoided some of the trouble we’re now in if more had been done to challenge unethical companies like Carter-Ruck at an earlier stage.

But lastly, there has to be a question here about practicality. However much Carter Ruck and their corporate clients might like to suppress free speech through the use of one secret injunction after another, the recent Twitter-storm around Trafigura has shown that this can sometimes be impossible in practice.

If Carter-Ruck are right and Bridget Prentice is wrong, then it seems that I may, after all, have been in contempt of court when I posted the ‘banned’ Parliamentary Question on Twitter back in October. Would I be willing to do so again? I wouldn’t rule it out. And it strikes me that now would be a good time to get a head-count of bloggers and Tweeters prepared to consider engaging in peaceful civil disobedience should Carter-Ruck – or anyone else – attempt to gag the reporting of Parliament again. You can leave a comment here or email me via richardcameronwilson AT yahoo DOT co DOT UK.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 6, 2009 at 9:10 am

The HIV patient who died after his denialist “friend” persuaded him to stop taking his medications

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Of all the tragic individual stories I’ve come across recently about the impact of AIDS denialism, this has to be among the very saddest:

From Denying Aids

Maniotis claims that Lambros was like a brother to him. With such brothers, who needs enemies? The two men became friends, and Maniotis visited Lambros often in the last few years, his influence growing stronger and stronger, ultimately convincing him that HIV did not exist. Lambros stopped taking his medication and the result was devastating. After his death, Lambros’s family and friends found his medication in his refrigerator, untouched since 2007. Instead of his life-saving doctor prescribed medicine, Lambros was convinced to consume Maniotis-promoted vitamins…

HIV ultimately landed him at Howard University Hospital under unclear circumstances. The most likely scenario is that he was found confused and disoriented and was taken to the closest emergency room. He had developed encephalitis, a common outcome of end-stage HIV infection. He was later transferred to Georgetown Hospital, where he died of encephalitis. During his more lucid moments at the hospital, Lambros told his friends he was dying of AIDS…

Written by Richard Wilson

December 5, 2009 at 3:26 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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