Gag order lifted on the reporting of a parliamentary question involving the dumping of toxic waste *
By ELAINE EDWARDS
‘Guardian’ claims ‘gag’ victory
The Guardian newspaper in Britain said it is now free to report on a parliamentary question relating to oil company Trafigura, which last month offered to pay compensation to 31,000 victims of pollution caused by waste dumped in Ivory Coast.
The newspaper had earlier said it would go to court “urgently” in order to overturn a gag on its reporting of a specific matter in parliamentary proceedings this week.
Labour MP Paul Farrelly had tabled the question on tomorrow’s House of Commons order paper that resulted in a gag on the newspaper.
That question, in part, seeks a response from the justice secretary on what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect whistleblowers and press freedom following an injunction obtained by Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on September 11th last on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.
The Guardian last month published internal emails which it said revealed Trafigura “was fully aware that its waste dumped in Ivory Coast was so toxic that it was banned in Europe”.
Thousands of west Africans visited local hospitals in 2006, and some died, after the dumping of hundreds of tonnes of highly toxic oil waste around the country’s capital, Abidjan. Postmortem reports on 12 alleged victims appeared to show fatal levels of the poisonous gas hydrogen sulphide, one of the waste’s lethal byproducts, the newspaper said.
On its website today, the Guardian said it had been “prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds which appear to call into question privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights”.
“Today’s published [House of] 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,” it said.
“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 newspaper said the only fact it could report was that “the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations”.
It said it had “vowed urgently” to go to court to overturn the gag on its reporting.
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, said: “The media laws in this country increasingly place newspapers in a Kafkaesque world in which we cannot tell the public anything about information which is being suppressed, nor the proceedings which suppress it. It is doubly menacing when those restraints include the reporting of parliament itself.”
The newspaper editor thanked those who had helped to spread the news of the gag order via Twitter and said it was a “victory” for freedom of speech.
Media lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC, quoted by the newspaper, said Lord Denning had ruled in the 1970s that “whatever comments are made in parliament” can be reported in newspapers without fear of contempt.
Carter-Ruck describes itself on its website as having “unrivalled expertise in advising a wide range of individuals and organisations who find themselves subject to adverse or intrusive media coverage and who need fast and reliable advice on their legal rights”.
“The firm’s claimant practice is the largest in the country, being described in Chambers Guide to the Legal Profession as ‘unsurpassed’.”
The firm’s website says that where it is consulted before publication under its ‘MediaAlert’ service, “Carter-Ruck is often able to persuade a publisher or broadcaster to change its intended story or even to decide not to publish it at all”.
“If this does not prove possible then the option of obtaining an injunction to prevent publication will be considered.
“The firm has an excellent record over recent years of securing injunctions prohibiting publication, particularly of private information. We are often able to secure injunctions in a matter of hours. We also have considerable experience of working (often alongside PR agencies) for blue chip corporations and other clients facing sustained and hostile media interest.”
By David Leigh and Afua Hirsch
Papers prove Trafigura ship dumped toxic waste in Ivory Coast
Documents have emerged which detail for the first time the potentially lethal nature of toxic waste dumped by British-based oil traders in one of west Africa’s poorest countries.
More than 30,000 people from Ivory Coast claim they were affected by the poisonous cocktail and are currently bringing Britain’s biggest-ever group lawsuit against the company, Trafigura.
The firm chartered the ship, Probo Koala, which transported the cargo to Ivory Coast in 2006.
An official Dutch analysis of samples of the waste carried by the Probo Koala indicate that it contained approximately 2 tonnes of hydrogen sulphide, a killer gas with a characteristic smell of rotten eggs.
The documents have been obtained by the BBC. One chemist told BBC Newsnight last night that if the same quantity and mixture of chemicals had been dumped in Trafalgar Square: “You would have people being sick for several miles around … millions of people.”
Trafigura, which claims to be one of the world’s biggest independent oil traders, originally issued statements in 2006 denying the tanker was carrying toxic waste. It said it merely contained routine “slops” – the dirty water from tank washing. Executives of the company lined up to specifically deny that the waste contained any hydrogen sulphide.
It was put by the Guardian to Trafigura’s lawyers with 24 hours notice that the company had been making wrong statements about the toxic waste. The firm’s lawyers, Carter-Ruck, then asked to be given more time, until 5.30pm tonight. When 5.30pm passed, they asked for another hour. By 7pm, they still remained silent.
They issued a statement at 7.38pm saying: “We have no intention of descending into a detailed debate as to the chemical composition of the ’slops’.” They said such matters would be resolved at the high court trial and that Trafigura’s position was “the slops did not and cannot have caused the deaths and widespread illnesses which have been alleged”.
In the long-running and bitterly contested lawsuit, Trafigura has currently offered to pay anyone from Ivory Coast who can prove the toxic waste actually caused them to fall ill. The claimants’ lawyer, Martyn Day, the senior partner at Leigh Day, a firm which specialised in group actions, says this concession will prevent the evidence detailing the true history of the Probo Koala from coming out in court. The case is due to be heard in October.
Court hearings were held in secret yesterday, after allegations were made that Trafigura had been attempting to “nobble” witnesses to induce them to change their stories. Trafigura in turn claims that its employees face reprisals and even threats to their lives.
Mr Justice McDuff said: “This case has attracted much media attention and aroused strong feelings for many. However, I have acceded to an application to hold part of the hearing in private because on the evidence I have heard certain parties to the litigation have felt intimidated or threatened with reprisals.”
He said the secret hearing involved “applications for witness anonymity and other witness protection”.
A previous hearing had issued an injunction banning Trafigura from contacting any of the claimants. This followed the submission of evidence that one of the claimants had been flown business class from Ivory Coast to Morocco, put up at a luxury hotel, and offered money. The claimant said he had also been interviewed in the Morocco hotel by Simon Nurney, partner at Macfarlanes, Trafigura’s solicitors.