Standing up to corporate bullies

Cecil RosnerOne of the most potent threats to investigative journalism comes from the legal departments of big corporations, writes Cecil Rosner. Here’s a great example and the lessons for journalists.

The BBC wasn’t  mincing its words last May when it reported on a shocking incident involving a multinational corporation and one of the poorest countries on earth.

“It is the biggest toxic dumping scandal of the 21st century,” the public broadcaster said, “the type of environmental vandalism that international treaties are supposed to prevent. Now Newsnight can reveal the truth about the waste that was illegally tipped on Ivory Coast’s biggest city, Abidjan.”

The story involved the giant oil and mineral-trading firm Trafigura, which was attempting to treat and dispose of hundreds of tons of toxic sulphur sludge. In the dead of night on August 18, 2006, the waste was off-loaded in Abidjan and dumped all over the city. Residents picked through debris, looking for anything of value. Thousands later got sick.

Reporters NotebookThe BBC interviewed Fidel Kouadio, eight months pregnant when the fumes invaded her home. She gave birth prematurely and her baby died within a day. According to some reports, nearly 100,000 people eventually sought hospital treatment, and more than 30,000 launched a lawsuit against the company, citing breathing problems, diarrhea and other health issues.

Ever since the episode had begun in 2006, Trafigura tried to deflect responsibility for the dumping and argued that the materials weren’t particularly dangerous anyway, only that they smelled bad. The company also launched a comprehensive public relations campaign to counteract negative publicity. And they aggressively threatened to sue media outlets who waded into the story.

According to the Guardian newspaper, whenever journalists tried to write critically about the company, they were pressured by Carter-Ruck, London’s most aggressive libel lawyers. The BBC was slapped with a libel writ for its reporting, and other journalists in the Netherlands and Norway were put on notice as well.

Last month, the story took another twist when the Guardian and BBC revealed internal company emails showing that Trafigura knew the waste dumped in Abidjan was so toxic it was banned across Europe. The emails revealed an effort to profit from suspect methods of treating the waste. As the story was breaking, Trafigura countered with compensation offers to the thousands of people who had initiated the lawsuit against it.

The damning internal emails had been gathered by a group of agencies including Greenpeace and Amnesty and shared with reporters at different media outlets. The Guardian said the effort was a good example of international co-operation among media outlets. Spokesmen for Greenpeace said they noticed many media outlets shying away from the story in the early going because of fears they would be sued. But the eventual release of the emails gave the story a different complexion.

Even the UN human rights special rapporteur, Okechukwu Ibeanu, criticized the company for potentially stifling independent reporting and public criticism in a report Trafigura ironically tried to prevent being published as well. Trafigura maintains the settlement of the court case vindicates its position, and it continues to deny direct responsibility for the dumping, which was done by a sub-contractor.

What are the lessons for investigative journalists from this episode? For one thing, it demonstrates that even in an age of international awareness of human rights and environmental concerns, there can be disturbing cases of illegal activities that affect so many thousands of people. What is equally disturbing is how little coverage the case has received  in North America.

Secondly, the case is another reminder of the courage that journalists need to show in the face of intense pressures. Threats of lawsuits and gag orders can weigh heavily on individual journalists and their organizations. The BBC responded with a fighting defence, arguing that Trafigura’s denials lacked candour and credibility, and accusing the company of a cover-up.

Even though Trafigura has agreed to pay about $50 million to settle compensation claims, and an additional $160 million to the Ivory Coast government for the cleanup, the case is not over. Greenpeace now wants to prosecute Trafigura in the British courts for manslaughter and causing grievous bodily harm.

(Image by alex-s. Used under Creative Commons license.)

Cecil Rosner is managing editor for CBC Manitoba and editor of J-Source’s Investigative Journalism area. He teaches investigative journalism at the University of Winnipeg, and is the author of Behind the Headlines: A History of Investigative Journalism in Canada.