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A gag too far

By Index on Censorship / 14 October, 2009

Carter-Ruck, the aggressive media law firm helping the Trafigura oil-trading company in relation to reports of its 2006 waste dumping disaster in Côte d’Ivoire, scored a spectacular own goal yesterday when it tried to keep the Guardian from reporting a parliamentary question due to be asked today.

The Guardian asked for an urgent hearing to overturn the gag, which goes against free-speech privileges enshrined in the Bill of Rights of 1688 as well as long-established legal precedent; Carter-Ruck withdrew before the matter came to court. It was the work of a few tedious minutes to skim through the Commons Order Book online and find the relevant question. In no time the news had been spread by flocks of twitterati.

The question refers to a previously secret High Court injunction banning the Guardian from mentioning the Minton report, commissioned by Trafigura in September 2006, which related to toxicity levels of the caustic tank washings dumped that August on the coast around Abidjan. Whatever the consultants said, Trafigura continued for three years to claim that they were harmless.

The company finally announced a weak compensation deal for some of the victims — with no admission of liability — on 17 September, the day after the Guardian published internal emails between Trafigura executives considering how to dispose of the toxic “crap” in order to profit from a cheap consignment of petrol from Mexico. The Minton report itself is available on the internet from the anti-corruption group Wikileaks.

Trafigura and Carter-Ruck have mounted a desperate campaign to stop the media from reporting on the illegal dumping, which is said to have caused vomiting, choking and skin eruptions in some 100,000 people and killed at least 12 Ivorians. As well as the injunction against the Guardian, the firm issued a libel writ against BBC2’s Newsnight, which also reported on the dumping, and threatened journalists from Norway, the Netherlands, Estonia and The Times. The Dutch Greenpeace campaigner Marietta Harjono has said she was told not to mention Trafigura on a British radio interview for fear of libel claims.

Carter-Ruck (known to readers of Private Eye by a slightly different name) specialises in protecting clients from “adverse or intrusive” media coverage, and boasts involvement in more than half the libel and privacy claims issued in the High Court in any given year. It offers a 24-hour “media alert” service, threatening media outlets in order to change or block unwanted stories before publication, and often works alongside PR agencies on behalf of clients facing “sustained and hostile media interest.” Obviously, the firm has found that its approach works — or why would it be so clumsy as to block a campaigning newspaper from reporting on Parliament?

Maria Margaronis is London correspondent for The Nation.

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