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Skepticism and freedom

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The video that could see Sanal Edamaruku jailed for “blasphemy”

At Leicester Skeptics in the Pub on June 19th, I’ll be talking about the link between skepticism and freedom of speech.

It’s hard to find a more pressing example of the problems that skeptics can face when powerful institutions threaten freedom of speech than that of Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalist Association. On May 10th, Sanal went on Indian TV to debunk a purported “miracle” at a Catholic Church in Mumbai. Now, after local Catholic groups reported him to the authorities, he is facing a criminal prosecution for “deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community”.

The Rationalist Association have set up an online petition calling on the Catholic community to withdraw their complaint, and urging the Catholic authorities elsewhere in the world to speak out against the prosecution.

The Catholic Church in England and Wales has a Twitter account here if you would like to send them a polite message urging them to speak out against the persecution of Sanal Edamaruku.

Things are also reaching a critical point here in the UK as the Libel Reform campaign seeks to ensure that the government’s proposed changes to our laws really do ensure that people asking difficult questions are properly  protected from vexatious prosecutions. The Libel Reform Campaign are now appealing to all those concerned about freedom of speech in Britain to contact their MP and join a mass lobby of Parliament on June 27th.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 18, 2012 at 9:10 pm

SOPA breaks the internet

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Written by Richard Wilson

January 17, 2012 at 10:09 pm

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Bell Pottinger’s threats over the Guardian’s Trafigura coverage

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Culture Media and Sports Committee: Further written evidence from Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian

…On 27 June 2008, Bell Pottinger sent a threatening message to the Guardian. They had previously sent similar threats and complaints to AP, whose agency dispatch had been published on-line by the Guardian. The message ended:

“Please note that in view of the gravity of these matters and of the allegations which have been published, I am copying Trafigura’s solicitors, Carter-Ruck, into this email.”

The letter demanded changes to the Guardian’s website to include this information:

“The Probo Koala … left Amsterdam with the full knowledge and clear approval of the Dutch authorities.” It also stated that the disposal company in Amsterdam had asked for extra fees “without any credible justification” and that “ship’s slops are commonly produced within the oil industry. To label Trafigura’s slops as ‘toxic waste’ in no way accurately reflects their true composition.”

On 16 September 2008, Trafigura posted a statement on their website claiming:

“Trafigura is in no way responsible for the sickness suffered by people in Abidjan … The discharge of slops from cargo vessels is a routine procedure that is undertaken all over the world.”

The company knew this was a misleading and false statement.

On 22 September 2008, the Guardian’s East Africa correspondent, Xan Rice, asked Trafigura some questions, in view of the then impending trial of local Ivoirian waste contractors.

Trafigura refused to answer, a refusal coupled with another pointed referral to libel solicitors. Bell Pottinger wrote: “I am copying this email to Carter-Ruck”.

Xan Rice’s article was not published by the Guardian.

The Ivoirian trial convicted local individuals for toxic dumping, Trafigura subsequently abandoned some of their lines of defence in the English litigation they originally claimed they had no duty of care, and could not have foreseen what the local dumpers might do. Trafigura now agreed instead, to pay anyone who could prove the toxic waste had made them ill. They continued to deny publicly that such a thing was possible.

Xan Rice again asked some factual questions. On 14 November 2008, Bell Pottinger responded “Please note that I am copying this correspondence to Carter-Ruck and to the Guardian’s legal department”. They added: “Any suggestion, even implicit, that Trafigura … should have stood trial in Ivory Coast would be completely unfounded and libellous … We insist that you refer in detail to the contents of the attached summary”.

They claimed to be sueing for libel the senior partner of Leigh Day who was bringing the English lawsuit. They added that further Leigh Day statements “are the subject of a complaint in Malicious Falsehood”[sic]. In fact, the libel proceedings against Martyn Day had been stayed, and no malicious falsehood proceedings had been – or were ever – issued.

A closely-typed six-page statement was attached. In it the company claimed to have “independent expert evidence” of the non-toxicity of the waste, but refused to disclose it. Trafigura repeated the false claim that the waste was merely “a mixture of gasoline, water and caustic soda”.

No Guardian article, once again, was published.

On 3 December 2008, less than 3 weeks later, Trafigura formally admitted to the High Court the true composition of the waste in its document “Likely chemical composition of the slops”, [detailed above].

On 5 December 2008, Trafigura formally admitted their waste came from Merox-style chemical processing attempts, and not from routine tank-rinsing.

On 29 April 2009, Carter-Ruck wrote to a Dutch paper: “Trafigura has been obliged to engage my firm to bring complaints against Volkskrant … It is indeed the case that we have on Trafigura’s behalf, written to a number of other media outlets around the world in respect of their coverage of this matter”. Bell Pottinger also confirmed contact with journalists who published or broadcast stories that did not accurately reflect Trafigura’s position, but added: “We completely disagree with your description of Trafigura’s involvement in an ‘aggressive media campaign’.”

On 13 May 2009, Bell Pottinger, in concert with Carter-Ruck, issued a statement to the BBC repeating two assertions known to be false.

They said the Leigh Day statement “is currently the subject of a malicious falsehood complaint made by Trafigura”. They also claimed once more: “The Probo Koala’s slops were a mixture of gasoline, water and caustic soda”.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 8, 2011 at 10:05 am

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Amnesty International urges the release of Jean-Claude Kavumbagu

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From Amnesty International


Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, the editor of a Burundian online news agency, Netpress, has been detained since July after suggesting that the Burundian security forces could not defend the country. He has not been tried and was denied a bail request on appeal in November.

Jean-Claude Kavumbagu published an article on 12 July 2010, one day after suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, criticizing the capacity of Burundian security forces to protect the country from a terrorist attack. Somali Islamist armed group, al-Shabaab, claimed responsibility for the bombings in Uganda. They also threatened to attack Burundi in retaliation for Burundi’s participation in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Jean-Claude Kavumbagu’s article said that “the anxiety has been palpable in Bujumbura and all those who have heard about [the bombings] yesterday in Kampala were convinced that if the al-Shabaab militants wanted to try ‘something’ in our country, they would succeed with disconcerting ease, [as] our defense and security forces shine in their capacity to pillage and kill their compatriots rather than defend our country.” He was arrested on 17 July, questioned without a lawyer, charged with treason, and transferred to Mpimba Central Prison, Bujumbura.

Treason is a crime punishable by life imprisonment and is only applicable under Burundian law in time of war. Jean-Claude Kavumbagu has also been charged with defamation and violating Burundi’s press law. Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression. His detention may detrimentally impact on the exercise of free expression in Burundi. It could increase self-censorship by other journalists to protect themselves from arbitrary arrest and detention.

Jean-Claude Kavumbagu’s bail request was rejected on 6 September. At the appeal on 9 November, his defence claimed that violating the press law and defamation do not justify preventative detention and that treason is not a valid charge. However, the Appeal Court of Bujumbura confirmed his pre-trial detention on 11 November. As of 6 December, his lawyers had not received a copy of the ruling and were waiting for the trial date to be announced.

Mpimba Central Prison is overcrowded and insanitary and conditions fall well below international standards.

PLEASE WRITE IMMEDIATELY in French, English, Kirundi or your own language:

expressing grave concern that journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu has been detained on charges of treason and defamation for criticizing the Burundian security services;

urging the authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally, as he is a prisoner of conscience detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression;

reminding the authorities that, as a state party to the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Burundi is obliged to uphold the right to freedom of expression.



Pierre Nkurunziza, Président de la République, Présidence de la République, Boulevard de l’Uprona, Rohero I, BP 1870, Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 24 89 08

Salutation: Monsieur le Président/ Your Excellency

Minister of Justice and Keeper of Seals

Madame Ancilla Ntakaburimvo

Ministre de la Justice et Garde des Sceaux, Ministère de la Justice et Garde des Sceaux, BP 1880Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 21 86 10

Salutation: Madame la Ministre

And copies to:

The Prosecutor of the Republic

Monsieur Elyse Ndaye

Procureur Générale de la République

Parquet Général

BP 105

Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 27 30 53

Also send copies to diplomatic representatives accredited to your country. Check with your section office if sending appeals after the above date.


ADditional Information

Burundi has a vibrant media and journalists continue to criticize the government despite attempts to silence them. The Burundian government has used prolonged pre-trial detention, harassment by judicial authorities and substantive and procedural violations of Burundian law to unduly restrict freedom of speech. Burundi is a state party to both the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantee the right to freedom of expression.

The Burundian government is particularly sensitive to criticism of their security forces. Al-Shabaab, a Somali Islamist armed group, has threatened to attack Burundi, as well as Uganda, in retaliation for their contributions to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). AMISOM is a peace support operation mandated to protect the institutions of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. The 11 July bombings in Kampala, Uganda, for which al-Shabaab claimed responsibility, killed 74 people who had come together to watch the World Cup Final, and injured another 70.

Jean-Claude Kavumbagu was arrested on 17 July by Colonel David Nikiza, the Commander of the Western Region, who presented him with a mandat d’amener (an order calling him before the prosecutor). He was charged with treason defined under Article 570 of the Burundian criminal code as: “any Burundian who, in times of war… knowingly participates in an attempt to demoralize the Army or the Nation, with the object of weakening national defense.” Jean-Claude Kavumbagu has also been charged with defamation (imputations dommageables), under Article 251 of the penal code, and violating Article 50 of the 2003 press law (loi No 1 025 du Novembre 2003 regissant la presse du Burundi).

On 30 July, Jean-Claude Kavumbagu was brought before the High Court in Bujumbura (Tribunal de Grande Instance de la Mairie de Bujumbura). His lawyer requested bail, arguing that his pre-trial detention was not prescribed by Burundian law. The court did not rule on the case because one judge had been transferred to another court two days earlier – a move attracting criticism from 10 civil society organizations in a joint communiqué because the judge waited until the trial date to notify the court. The court was forced to wait until September, after the August judicial holidays, to reconvene.

Jean-Claude Kavumbagu’s bail request was finally heard on 1 September. The court ruled on 6 September that Jean-Claude Kavumbagu would be remanded in custody to ensure his availability for the investigation. At the appeal on 9 November, the defence called for provisional liberty claiming that two charges – violating the press law and defamation – did not, under Burundian law, justify preventative detention. The defence stated that if Jean-Claude Kavumbagu were to be charged with treason, the Prosecution would need to declare that Burundi was at war on 12 July. The representative for the Public Prosecutor stated that Burundi had not been at war on 12 July, but that it was for the court to decide. The Appeal Court of Bujumbura confirmed his pre-trial detention on 11 November.

Jean-Claude Kavumbagu has been a prisoner of conscience several times, most recently in 2008 when he was charged with defamation. He alleged that the cost of President Nkurunziza’s trip to see the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics had caused some civil servants’ salaries to be paid late. He was held in pre-trial detention for seven months before being acquitted in March 2009. The Prosecutor appealed the acquittal and the case remains open.

UA: 248/10 Index: AFR 16/004/2010 Issue Date: 06 December 2010

Written by Richard Wilson

December 12, 2010 at 10:41 pm

Wikileaks and Cablegate – Treasonous questions

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A few weeks ago I saw Wikileaks spokesman Julian Assange debating Times pundit David Aaronovitch on the ethics of transparency and disclosure, at City University in London. The big question of the night was whether Wikileaks should have done more to protect the identities of the Afghan informants featured in the now-famous US military Afghan War Logs – and to what extent Wikileaks would be culpable if anyone identified in the logs was killed by the Taleban.

David Aaronovitch came across as thoughtful, measured, and courteous – praising many of Assange’s achievements but challenging him to acknowledge greater moral complexity, and take more responsibility for the possible unintended consequences of his work.  Assange, by contrast, seemed condescending, and at times bad-tempered, giving a series of abstract and elliptical answers that were often much stronger on rhetoric than detail.

Although a number of Aaronovitch’s arguments seemed to me to be deeply flawed, they were masterfully made, and Assange did a poor job of responding to them.  The audience appeared unimpressed.

In my view, Julian Assange has done himself no favours by appearing to suggest that the greater-good of a more transparent world might justify (or morally counterbalance) some degree of “collateral damage” to innocent people inadvertently put at risk by being identified on Wikileaks.

It seems to me that there are some serious ethical issues at stake in the publication of details which could lead to increased risks for innocent people, and that there are valid questions to be asked about the Wikileaks “harm minimization policy”.

And yet I don’t believe that any of the above criticisms quite does the job that the most vehement critics of Wikileaks seem to want them to.  Julian Assange may be arrogant, condescending and a poor debating match for David Aaronovitch – he may even be guilty of the (as yet unproven) charges laid against him by the Swedish authorities. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s wrong about the realities of UK and US foreign policy, or about the need for a radical shift towards greater public transparency worldwide.

Likewise, if it did transpire (and I’m not aware of any direct evidence to date) that an innocent person had been injured or killed at the hands of someone who had identified them via a document published on Wikileaks, this would, in my view, be a serious moral indictment. But it would not necessarily mean that Wikileaks were at fault in seeking to publish the document in some form – only that they were negligent in failing to redact all identifiable personal details.

While the issue of “harm minimization” cannot simply be brushed aside, it is clearly not the only ethical issue at stake in the debate about Wikileaks. One of the most serious charges made against the UK and US governments in the light of the Afghan War Logs and the more recent “cablegate” revelations is that the political elites who determine policy – both the politicians and the bureaucrats who advise them – have systematically deceived their electorates about the realities of the war in Afghanistan. As John Naughton puts it:

The WikiLeaks revelations expose the extent to which the US and its allies see no real prospect of turning Afghanistan into a viable state, let alone a functioning democracy. They show that there is no light at the end of this tunnel. But the political establishments in Washington, London and Brussels cannot bring themselves to admit this. Afghanistan is, in that sense, the same kind of quagmire as Vietnam was. The only differences are that the war is now being fought by non-conscripted troops and we are not carpet-bombing civilians, but otherwise little has changed…

These realities are, of course, plain to see, because even the mainstream media, despite its need always to pay tribute to “our brave troops”, has had to report some of it. But what nobody has known until now — outside of the magic circles of the Beltway, Whitehall and NATO HQ — is that our rulers privately concede the hopelessness of the venture. The implicit cynicism and hypocrisy of this is breathtaking — and it goes a long way towards explaining the irrational fury of our political elites at having it exposed in so brutal and unmediated a fashion.

If this analysis is fair, then it seems to me that Naughton may also be broadly correct that the latest row “represents the first really serious confrontation between the established order and the culture of the Net”.

I’ve been aware of Wikileaks since the early days of their existence. But I began following them closely last year, after the Trafigura super-injunction scandal, which centred on an internal company document, the “Minton Report”, published by Wikileaks in September 2009. Being based far outside of UK legal jurisdiction, relatively anonymous and with an opaque legal structure, Wikileaks were able to publish the information freely, at a time when the UK media had been comprehensively gagged. The fact that the “banned” information was so easily available from Wikileaks to anyone in the UK via a simple Google search helped to render Trafigura’s super-injunction redundant. The injunction was ultimately dropped, allowing the mainstream press to report freely on the case.

The Trafigura incident  highlighted starkly just how constrained the UK media is. But it also gave insights into how a site like Wikileaks could be used to weaken and circumvent those constraints.  A UK court had issued an injunction threatening jail-time for contempt-of-court to anyone who so much as referred to the “Minton Report”. Wikileaks had blithely ignored it. It was impossible not to wonder what they would turn up next – or how far they would be allowed to go before a concerted attempt was made to shut them down.

The very existence of Wikileaks also seemed to point towards a larger question – how durable is the scale of freedom that has developed on the internet in recent years? Will the net really lead to a permanent “redistribution of data” – the mass availability of information previously so jealously guarded by the media and political elites? Or will the current era come to be seen as a short-lived blip – an involuntarily loosening of controls that lasted only as long as it took for the elites to figure out the dynamics of the new technology, devise new systems for bringing it under control, and develop the political means to apply those systems worldwide?

It seems possible that we will get some clues about these questions over the next year. Will Julian Assange receive a credible and fair trial in Sweden if, as seems likely, he is arrested and extradited in the next few weeks on rape charges? Will he ultimately be handed over to the US authorities and prosecuted for some yet-to-be-defined espionage offence – and if so will he get a fair trial there? Will the US government seek to make an example of the suspected whistleblower Bradley Manning by pressing for the death penalty, as senior Republican politicians appear to be demanding? Will the political fallout generated by the Wikileaks revelations lead US legislators to support new laws watering down constitutional free speech protections? Will US allies around the world be persuaded to modify their own laws to make it more difficult for websites like Wikileaks to operate outside the reach of US jurisdiction? Will the bulk of the established mainsteam media support such efforts at increased censorship, or seek to rally public opinion against them?

At this stage I still find the signs very difficult to read. Many technical people I’ve spoken to seem convinced that there is simply no practical way, in technological terms, of controlling internet traffic without also imposing Chinese-style levels of domestic political surveillance and repression. National governments may succeed in shutting down sites like Wikileaks temporarily, the argument goes – but while the technology for sharing large amounts of data and putting it online is so ubiquitous and easy to master, it’s inevitable that censored information will simply reappear elsewhere on the net before too long.

On the other hand, the forces ranged against Wikileaks – and the idea that it represents – now seem formidable. Where previously the United States – and to a lesser extent the member countries of the European Union – have taken a broadly liberal stance on internet censorship, the position appears to be shifting.  Commenting on developments in a statement earlier this week, the press freedom group Reporters Sans Frontieres noted that:

French digital economy minister Eric Besson today said the French government was looking at ways to ban hosting of the site. WikiLeaks was also recently dropped by its domain name provider EveryDNS. Meanwhile, several countries well known for for their disregard of freedom of expression and information, including Thailand and China, have blocked access to

This is the first time we have seen an attempt at the international community level to censor a website dedicated to the principle of transparency. We are shocked to find countries such as France and the United States suddenly bringing their policies on freedom of expression into line with those of China. We point out that in France and the United States, it is up to the courts, not politicians, to decide whether or not a website should be closed.

While the five permanent members of the UN Security Council may not be able to agree unanimously on much, the political elites in Britain, France, Russia, the United States and China suddenly seem much closer to a consensus on the need to control the information that their subjects can access online. And while western countries have opposed moves within the UN to create an international convention criminalising the “defamation of religion”, it’s harder to predict which way they would jump if a UN member state proposed a treaty to impose global controls on the internet.

Striking, too, has been the character of response from many mainstream US establishment figures to the exposure of their country’s embarrassing secrets. Newt Gingrich (former Speaker of the House of Representatives) has called for Julian Assange to be treated as an “enemy combatant” – placing him in the same category as the terror suspects denied basic legal rights and detained and tortured at Guantanamo Bay. Former Republican Vice Presidential candidate and likely Presidential contender Sarah Palin has called for him to be “hunted like Osama bin Laden”. The Washington Times, meanwhile, has published what could be described as a “fatwa” by Jeffrey T Kuhner, the President of the “Edmund Burke Institute”, urging the extrajudicial killing of Julian Assange on English soil.

Already it seems that there is pressure within the United States to extend the legal category of “non-person”, previously reserved for those suspected of direct involvement in terrorist atrocities, to cover those who publish information that the government alleges puts national security at risk.

While it seems doubtful that the current US administration would go to such extremes, given the Republican Party’s current rhetoric, their past record on torture and due process, and the lack of any prosecutions to deter such abuses in future, it’s difficult to predict how far they will go if they succeed in winning back the Presidency at the next election.

The position of the established media, too, seems uncertain. While the Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times have been instrumental in disseminating edited highlights of the recent Wikileaks disclosures, the conservative media have been active in airing the most authoritarian demands of the American hard-right, while others have been keen to offer their advice in how the “threat” might be contained.

“If America feels threatened by WikiLeaks”, writes the Economist, “then it should lean on its allies—Sweden, Iceland and Belgium—to strip the organisation of the protections it so carefully gathers as it shifts its information around the world. Mr Assange has suggested that he might be hounded all the way to Russia or Cuba. If he has to take all of his servers with him, it will be harder for him to act so boldly.”

Written by Richard Wilson

December 5, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Wikileaks in the 16th Century…

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(Title now updated thanks to the helpful copy-edit prompting of @coxar and @johnrentoul…)

There was once a time when it was considered “treasonous” to give the masses direct access to the holy texts of the Church. From Wikipedia:

William Tyndale was the first to translate considerable parts of the Bible into English, for a public, lay readership…

Tyndale’s was the first English translation to draw directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, and the first to take advantage of the new medium of print, which allowed for its wide distribution.

This was taken to be a direct challenge to the hegemony of both the Catholic church and the English church and state….

In 1535, Tyndale was arrested by church authorities and jailed in the castle of Vilvoorde outside Brussels for over a year. He was tried for heresy, strangled and burnt at the stake. The Tyndale Bible, as it was known, continued to play a key role in spreading Reformation ideas across Europe.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 30, 2010 at 12:24 pm

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Private Eye takes first prize in the “Trafigura Challenge”

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Private Eye wins the prize for being the first UK media outlet to report fully on these allegations about Trafigura and their law firm MacFarlanes. Here’s the PDF

Written by Richard Wilson

November 26, 2010 at 5:24 pm

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