Trafigura's attempts to gag the media prove that libel laws should be repealed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
of the team specialised in treating toxic waste take samples of the
toxic waste dumped in Akouedo, Ivory Coast. Photograph: Issouf
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.
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.
Trafiguras have got away with it by fr*ghtening 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iniquitous, outdated laws are a threat to democracy, a threat to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