Friday, 18 September 2009

Trafigura's attempts to gag the media prove that libel laws should be repealed


Defamation laws which Trafigura tried to use must no longer be allowed to hide corporate malpractice or stifle criticism 



trafigura toxic waste investigation in ivory coast

Members of the team specialised in treating toxic waste take samples of the toxic waste dumped in Akouedo, Ivory Coast. Photograph: Issouf Sanogo/AFP

If you are not convinced that Britain's libel laws operate against the public interest, check out the Trafigura case. Thousands of west Africans fell ill and an unknown number died in 2006 after hundreds of tonnes of the oil company's toxic oil waste were dumped in densely populated parts of Ivory Coast.

Now that the Guardian has found the smoking gun — the cynical and disgraceful emails from Trafigura traders discussing the creation and disposal of dangerous wastes – the company's attempts to stifle its critics have collapsed. But until now the coverage of the case in Britain, with a few honourable exceptions such as Newsnight and the Guardian's investigations team, has been curiously muted. This could be one of the worst cases of corporate killing and injury since the Bhopal disaster, but much of the media wouldn't touch it with a bargepole.

The reason isn't hard to divine: Trafigura has been throwing legal threats (pdf) around like confetti. It's true that the company has also threatened journalists in the Netherlands and Norway, but the law is less kind to such plaintiffs in those countries, and its threats were taken less seriously.

In Britain, libel (or defamation) is used as the rich man's sedition law, stifling criticism and exposure of all kinds of malpractice. Dating back to the 13th century, it was reframed during the past 200 years specifically to protect wealthy people from criticism, based on the presumption that any derogatory remark made about a gentleman must be false. The law of defamation is the only British instrument which places the burden of proof on the defendant. Given the inordinate costs involved, it's not surprising that it discourages people from investigating abuses of power.

How many Trafiguras have got away with it by frightening critics away with Britain's libel laws? How many Robert Maxwells have successfully fended off attempts to show that they have robbed, cheated and lied? These iniquitous, outdated laws are a threat to democracy, a threat to society, a threat to the environment and public health. They must be repealed.

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