Trafigura and the Great Firewall of Westminster

Update (13/10/09 1330): The gag has been lifted.

London’s Guardian newspaper has been gagged from reporting a specific item of parliamentary business. The subject of the gagging order is thought to be a question to be asked by an elected MP of the Secretary of State for Justice:

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) – 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.

All that the Guardian can say about it is here.

The question has been written down and noted in the public record of parliamentary business and is timetabled to be “asked” in the House of Commons later this week.

The UK libel laws are byzantine and tightly drawn but one clear and simple certainty has been in place for nearly 40 years: “fair and accurate” and timely reporting of procedures in parliament are subject to absolute privilege, the highest protection against legal action possible.

This action is an entirely cynical attempt to cover up an appalling scandal involving a rich, powerful, politically well-connected and enthusiastically litigious corporation on the one hand and tens of thousands of sick poor people and major environmental damage on the other.

It’s not much of a surprise that Trafigura would attempt to prevent publication of evidence of their wrongdoing, evidence which might also show that the proof of their wrongdoing has been known to them for the last three years. For the past three years the company’s lawyers have been busy filing action after action against media organisations both here and in other European countries where legal action is being taken on behalf of Ivorian victims of the toxic dumping.

What is particularly worrying and anger-inducing about this business is that an English court granted the request for the gagging order.

Now here’s a bit of background about the information Trafigura and the company’s legal representatives do not wish to gain publicity. Cos, you know, gagging newspapers in the teeth of decades of established case law is the sort of action which invites such a public airing.

The parliamentary question concerns the oil, metals and minerals trading company Trafigura (which has close ties to the opposition Conservative party) and an inquiry into allegations that the company dumped toxic waste along the offshore waters of the Ivory Coast which then washed ashore on land in Ivory Coast capital Abidjan and affected the health of tens of thousands of Ivorians. The original story was carried in the Guardian on 14 May 2009:

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.

However by mid September Trafigura suddenly announced it had reached a settlement for the 30,000+ claims of compensation in the wake of the dumping.

The fuss now appears to centre around a report by science consultancy Minton, Trehane & Davies into Trafigura’s toxic waste disposal practices. It was commissioned by commercial and shipping law specialists Waterson Hicks and there is a pdf copy (downloadable from the wikileaks entry above) dated 14 September 2006.

Should the conclusions as outlined in the pdf bear any resemblance to the content of the report then Trafigura have been copped, bang to rights, and, what is more, they’ve known about the evidence of their wrong-doing for the past three years.

Tut tut tut. Naughty Trafigura.