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Press freedom prevails after parliament gag attempt is dropped

Text by Tony Todd

Latest update : 2009-10-19

In what is seen as a victory for press freedom in the UK, lawyers for an oil trading firm which allegedly dumped toxic waste in Ivory Coast have withdrawn an attempt to prevent the media from publishing an MP’s question tabled in parliament.

Lawyers for an international oil trading firm have withdrawn an attempt to stop a UK national newspaper from reporting an MP’s question in the British parliament after a spontaneous online campaign.

Carter-Ruck, a law firm representing London-based oil traders Trafigura, had tried to prevent the Guardian newspaper from reporting a question asked in Parliament by Labour MP Paul Farrelly, the newspaper claimed.

The question itself concerned press freedom and Trafigura’s previously-obtained court injunction forbidding the media from publishing material relating to the dumping of allegedly toxic oil waste in Ivory Coast in 2006.

Last month, Trafigura paid out 33 million euros to Ivorians who had been affected by “flu-like” symptoms following the dumping of the waste around the country’s capital Abidjan. The firm continues to deny that the waste caused any fatal or permanent injuries.


Known as a “super-injunction”, the September ruling by a UK court, granted at Trafigura's request, meant that British media were barred from mentioning the contents of a report into Trafigura-commissioned activities in Ivory Coast – or its very existence.

In this case, it involved omitting the name of the MP – Paul Farrelly – who tabled the question, which government minister was due to answer or why the order was in place.

The Guardian claimed Carter-Ruck had advised its journalists that the newspaper would be in contempt of court if it went ahead and published details of Mr Farrelly’s question.

Letting the cat out of the bag

Mr Farrelly used “parliamentary privilege” – under which British MPs are completely immune from legal action for anything they say in parliament – to raise the issue in front of journalists and parliamentarians, effectively letting the cat out of the bag.

The same day, a large number of Twitter users, outraged by the idea that a newspaper could be banned from publishing an MP’s question in parliament, overwhelmed the popular “micro-blogging" platform Twitter with details of what Mr Farrelly had asked.

By Monday night, the full question had been published on several prominent blogs, flying in the face of the Carter-Ruck injunction.

On Tuesday afternoon, Carter-Ruck withdrew its gagging attempt.

The Guardian's investigative journalist who broke the story, David Leigh, told FRANCE 24 that although it was the use of parliamentary privilege which forced the story into the open, the fact that the issue had made so much ground on the Internet showed that the media landscape was changing rapidly.

“It’s very unrealistic trying to keep something like this secret in the age of the Internet,” Leigh said.

Freedom to report

Mr Farrelly’s question, which was published across the British media on Wednesday, was addressed to Justice Secretary Jack Straw.

It asked: “What assessment has he [Straw] 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."

The issue has exposed profound misgivings in the UK over the effect of “super-injunctions” on freedom of the press.

These injunctions can forbid media within the court’s jurisdiction from reporting that the injunctions have even been made.

'Arrogant effrontery'

“It is scandalous that a law firm acting on behalf of a wealthy trading company should have thought, for a moment, that it could gag media organisations from reporting parliamentary business,” wrote the newspaper’s editor Alan Rusbridger.

“These are lawyers who seem to have lost sight of the fact that people risked their liberty and their lives for the right to report what their elected representatives say and do. It is little wonder that some social media websites went into virtual meltdown at the arrogant effrontery involved.”

Date created : 2009-10-14