A Swiss-based oil trader was briefly successful yesterday in preventing a British newspaper's from reporting on public goings-on in Parliament, because those goings-on revealed the company's cover-up of its massive toxic-waste dumping. This is why the First Amendment is good.
This would be like Exxon getting a judge to bar the New York Times from covering a debate in Congress about the Valdez oil spill, and it can happen in England because they don't have a fundamentally free press. Trafigura is a multinational commodities firm that allegedly offloaded more than 500 tons of toxic waste in Nigeria in 2006, which was then dumped by locals around Port Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. Thousands were sickened, and according to the Guardian, at least a dozen died. According to internal company e-mails published by the Guardian last month, Trafigura executives knew about the toxic waste even as it was publicly claiming that the stuff was harmless.
It's a significant scandal in the British press, and Trafigura hired the law firm Carter-Ruck to strike back, which in England means getting a judge to prevent newspapers from reporting anything you don't like. This appeared in the Guardian yesterday after the paper tried to report on a written question, published by the House of Commons, that was due to be asked by an MP of Justice Secretary Jack Straw:
Today's published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.
The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.
The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations.
Since that's the sort of thing that's more likely to happen in Iran than in England, Twitter got involved. People figured out from the Guardian's invocation of Carter-Ruck that the question likely involved Trafigura, and the company's name was furiously Twittered about as outrage grew over the gag order. Earlier this morning, Carter-Ruck dropped it's request for an injunction and the Guardian was free to report the public agenda of its own Parliament. Here is the question Trafigura tried to gag:
"To ask the Secretary of State for Justice what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura."
Hahahaha! It was a question about Trafigura's prior attempts to suppress coverage of the spill. Ironic, no? The Minton Report, which is available here on WikiLeaks [pdf] and reproduced below, is a 2006 study of the dumping commissioned by Trafigura that found that it was illegal and likely caused a massive release of hydrogen sulphide gas. It's unclear to us what specific attempts to suppress that report were made by Carter-Rusk, but last month the Guardian published a raft of internal Trafigura e-mails demonstrating the firm's knowledge of the dumping, and had this to say about the company's efforts to bury the story:
Trafigura's libel lawyers, Carter-Ruck, recently demanded the Guardian deleted published articles, saying it was "gravely defamatory" and "untrue" to say Trafigura's waste had been dumped cheaply and could have caused deaths and serious injuries. Both the Dutch paper Volkskrant and Norwegian TV said they were yesterday also threatened with gagging actions.
Trafigura launched a libel action against BBC Newsnight, complaining Trafigura had been wrongly accused of causing deaths, disfigurement and miscarriages, and had "suffered serious damage to their reputation".
While we're outraged and incensed and filled with righteous anger about the ability of a multinational company to, however briefly, blatantly and unabashedly gag the press (not to mention that the press would submit—ever hear of disobeying a court order, Guardian? Or Financial Times, which also abided by the censorhip?), we have to admit that we're thrilled by the outcome here. We never would have heard of Trafigura if the idiots hadn't tried to pull this off, and chances are, neither would you.
Here's Trafigura's response to the Guardian's prior coverage of the dumping [pdf].
The censored memo in full: