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Posts Tagged ‘Censorship

Independent breaks UK media silence over Trafigura trial in the Dutch courts

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With help from the newly-elected Green MP Caroline Lucas, The Independent  newspaper has taken a clear lead in the “Trafigura challenge” – the race to see which UK media outlet will be the first to report fully on the upcoming trial in the Dutch courts of the controversial oil company.

No UK newspaper or broadcaster has yet made any mention of  allegations made to Dutch prosecutors by Greenpeace – and widely featured in the Dutch media – that Trafigura and their law firm MacFarlanes sought to bribe witnesses in an earlier London court case. But the Independent has, by citing Caroline Lucas’ remarks, at least been able to reference the ongoing legal proceedings.

Under the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840, “correct copies” of any Parliamentary publication may freely be republished without fear of legal action, including, crucially, any action under the UK’s notoriously expensive and one-sided libel laws, which Trafigura has been ruthlessly exploiting.

In a message on Twitter last night, Caroline Lucas promised an “EDM [Early Day Motion] and PQs [Parliamentary Questions] to follow”, so with luck the UK press may soon have more opportunities to cover this story freely.

From The Independent

Caroline Lucas used her maiden speech to raise concerns that the British media are unable to fully report legal proceedings involving the commodities trading company Trafigura.

The Green MP pledged to use her new position in Parliament to raise the issue after legal claims were launched in the Netherlands against the company, which chartered the ship whose toxic sludge was illegally dumped in the Ivory Coast in 2006.

The Dutch-based oil trader caused outrage last year when a High Court injunction issued on its behalf had the effect of blocking coverage of parliamentary proceedings involving its activities. The “super-injunction”, obtained by the law firm Carter Ruck, was amended after it was accused of infringing the supremacy of Parliament by preventing the reporting of a question tabled by an MP. Politicians from all sides criticised the legal manoeuvre.

The law firm agreed to change the injunction and insisted there was no question that Trafigura had sought to gag the media from reporting parliamentary proceedings.

In her maiden speech to the House of Commons, Ms Lucas said she was still concerned that proceedings in foreign courts were not being reported in Britain. She said: “Last year honourable members from all sides of the House helped to shine a light on the actions of the international commodities trading group Trafigura, and the shipping of hazardous waste to the Ivory Coast.

“There was particular concern that the media in this country were being prevented from reporting the issues fully and fairly. This remains the case, for new legal actions concerning Trafigura have been launched in the Dutch courts and are being reported widely in other countries, but not here. And these are the kind of issues I would like to pursue.”

In unrelated proceedings, a court in Amsterdam is due to start hearing the trial next week of Trafigura for the alleged infringement of Dutch waste export laws relating to the Probo Koala, the chartered tanker whose waste was dumped at sites around the Ivorian city, Abidjan.

The company is accused along with the captain of the vessel, the municipal authorities in Amsterdam and a waste treatment company of breaking rules when the ship attempted to offload the waste in the Dutch city before it then departed for West Africa. The trial is expected to last five weeks.

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Written by Richard Wilson

May 28, 2010 at 7:51 am

Some good news on the battle for freedom of speech in the UK – British Chiropractic Association drop “bogus” libel case against Simon Singh

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The BCA have finally dropped their vindictive and misguided attempt to use UK libel law to attack a well-respected science writer, Simon Singh. This follows a refreshingly sensible ruling from the Court of Appeal in which the judges made it clear that the libel courts were no place for trying to settle a scientific debate.

If we’re lucky, this could help to deter at least the most extreme abuses by cranks, quacks, and peddlers of corporate pseudo-science who seek to silence their critics through threats of legal action.

Simon Singh has done a huge service to the many British writers and bloggers who have been threatened by quacks and charlatans – and also to the British wider public, who depend on the freedom of the press (including scientific journals) to ensure that bogus and flawed medical claims are properly scrutinised.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 15, 2010 at 9:32 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Trafigura vindicated? 115-page “Reply” which the company says rebuts the BBC’s case

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Trafigura’s Reply to the BBC’s libel Defence(PDF)

A few weeks ago Wikileaks published the 40-page court document in which the BBC laid out its defence against Trafigura’s libel claim, following this Newsnight report from May last year.

Trafigura had always insisted that the available scientific evidence vindicated them of blame for any deaths or serious injuries following the August 2006 Probo Koala toxic waste incident, and in December the BBC controversially withdrew their claims and agreed to pay damages. Yet Trafigura have never published the evidence which they say vindicates them, despite repeated requests.

Following the publication of the BBC document by Wikileaks, the blogger Calum Carr again contacted Trafigura to request their side of the story, but again to no avail.

Calum and I have now obtained this document ourselves. Given today’s very promising news about the libel reform campaign, we felt that this was a good moment to put the information out into the public domain, so that people can form their own view on this contentious issue.

Obtaining an electronic copy of this document has been an interesting process in itself. To do this, I had to:

1. Go to the High Court in person

2. Make a formal request for a copy of the document (giving full personal details including my home address)

3. Wait several days

4. Phone the High Court to see if the copy was ready

5. Visit the High Court again in person

6. Pay a not-insignificant photocopying fee

7. Pick up the paper copy of the document

8. Take the copy to a specialist document scanning company to get it turned into a PDF

9. Pay another fee

10. Wait another few days, before receiving the PDF via email.

This is apparently standard procedure for getting hold of key UK court documents. One would almost have thought that the legal authorities did not actually want the British public to have ready access to documents which are, at least in theory, available to all of us by right…

We might compare the above process to the mechanism involved in, say, accessing the text of a Parliamentary Question or a Select Committee report, eg:

1. Visit the Parliament website

2. Type in a relevant search term

2. Download the information (for free).

For all the concerns we might have about the current workings of the Parliament, its processes currently seem a whole lot more open transparent than those of the judiciary. Apart from anything else, the requirement that one has to visit the High Court in person to access a public document seems inherently discriminatory to anyone living a significant distance from London.

If and when we get some real progress on libel reform, it seems to me that opening up the judiciary to at least the same levels of scrutiny we have for Parliament could be an important next step.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 23, 2010 at 8:00 pm

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.

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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Are your taxes subsidising the libel tourism industry?

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Yesterday I wrote about a discussion in Parliament on the use of “super-injunctions” to gag the media. It turns out that no-one anywhere is keeping track of how many of these secret gags are being issued, or whether the judges involved are scrutinising the cases properly.

But another intriguing issue that came out of the same meeting relates to the  problem of “libel tourism”. Notoriously, under current UK law it’s now possible for anyone, anywhere in the world, who thinks they’ve been libelled on some website or another, to come to London and attempt to bankrupt the person responsible. Thus we have – for example – an Icelandic academic losing his home after being sued by a fellow-Icelander over things written on the University of Iceland website.

“Libel tourists” come here because it’s easy to win, even when you don’t have a case. The UK court system denies libel defendants a fair trial by effectively treating them as ‘guilty until proven innocent’, and because the legal costs of defending one’s self are up to 140 times higher than in other countries. This means that most ordinary people cannot afford adequate legal representation.

Those who really benefit from this system are, of course, law firms such as Carter Ruck, who help foreign libel tourists bring their exorbitant claims. What I wasn’t aware of until this week is that the UK taxpayer may also be helping to foot the bill. While the parties to the case pay lawyers’ fees, it was claimed during Tuesday’s meeting that the costs of actually running the court, paying the judges wages etc. comes out of the  public purse. If this is true, then not only are the likes of Carter Ruck making a fortune from these questionable foreign law suits – but we are indirectly subsidising the whole process through our taxes….

Written by Richard Wilson

November 7, 2009 at 11:45 am

Trafigura coverage still curtailed by libel abuse. UK media unable to report freely on deaths allegedly caused by dumping of Trafigura’s toxic waste

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gag

*Update* See also: Doc Richard – Trafigura suppresses scientific lecture – allegedly

*Update 2* Rebellion spreads – Caroline Lucas MEP mentions the unmentionable.

There’s renewed coverage today of the ongoing legal battles following the notorious Ivory Coast toxic waste incident, in which the oil trader Trafigura has been implicated.

The Guardian (UK), Times (UK) and New York Times (US) all report that the £30 million compensation payment by Trafigura to victims of the disaster is in danger of being misappropriated after an Ivorian court ordered that the funds be frozen.

But note also the contrast in how the UK and US media have reported the background to the story. Here’s how the New York Times covers it:

The waste was shipped by Trafigura, an international commodities trading giant. About 108,000 people sought treatment for nausea, headaches, vomiting and abdominal pains, and at least 15 died. All had apparently been poisoned by the toxic brew of gasoline and caustic soda, refining byproducts dumped by Trafigura’s contractor.

Here’s the Guardian:

Hundreds of tonnes of sulphur-contaminated toxic oil waste were cheaply dumped on landfills and in ditches around Abidjan in 2006. The cargo ship had been chartered by Trafigura. In the weeks after, the fumes caused thousands of sick people to besiege local hospitals.

…and here’s the Times:

A cargo ship chartered by Trafigura dumped hundreds of tonnes of sulphur-contaminated toxic oil waste around Abidjan in 2006. In the following weeks the fumes caused thousands of people to need hospital treatment.

The deaths of “up to 17” Ivorians has been widely reported elsewhere. In previous articles, both the Times and the Guardian have referred to a UN report citing “official estimates” of 15 dead. So it seems odd that this seemingly crucial detail should now be omitted.

The New York Times is of course free to say what it likes because freedom of speech is protected under the US constitution, and New York State has a law which specifically prohibits the enforcement of UK libel judgements in NY, due to human rights concerns.

Fortunately in the UK we do still have (despite some recent confusion) an absolute right to report the proceedings of Parliament, so I can draw your attention to this recent statement from Evan Harris MP:

My understanding is that “Newsnight” is being threatened by the lawyers for Trafigura, Carter-Ruck, if it repeats an allegation… that deaths were caused by the dumping of toxic waste in Ivory Coast, even though in 2007 Hansard reported the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations laid by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs before Parliament, and a memorandum of explanation to those regulations stated:

“The recent example of the release of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast leading to the deaths of a number of people and the hospitalisation of thousands underlines the risks involved in the movement and management of waste.”

How can it be that that can be in Hansard, yet there are still threats of legal action against “Newsnight” if it reports the very same wording that is used in there? That cannot be right.

What Dr. Harris could also have mentioned is that, astoundingly, alongside these renewed threats, Trafigura’s libel action over this damning May 2009 news report, appears still to be ongoing.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 5, 2009 at 10:52 am