'Guardian' claims 'gag' victory

 

The Guardiannewspaper 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 Guardianlast 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 Guardiansaid 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 Guardianis 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 Guardianis 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.

Guardianeditor 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."

News of the gagging order spread rapidly on the internet last night via the social networking site Twitter and led to the search term 'Guardian' becoming the top 'trending' topic on the site. The term 'CarterRuck' was also among the most popular search terms this morning.

Mr Rusbridger posted to Twitter: "Hoping to get into court today to challenge ban by carter-ruck on reporting parliament. Watch this space."

In a later update, Mr Rusbridger said there would now be no court hearing and that it could now report Paul Farrelly's parliamentary question about Trafigura. It would post more details on its website, he said.

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.

Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg earlier said on Twitter he was “very interested” and “concerned” about the issue and would be taking action. The party's chief whip Paul Burstow also requested, under House of Commons standing orders, an urgent debate tomorrow on “the freedom to report on Parliamentary proceedings”.

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.

According to the Guardian, the right to report parliament was the subject of many struggles in the 18th century, with the MP and journalist John Wilkes fighting every authority – up to the king – over the right to keep the public informed.

"After Wilkes's battle, wrote the historian Robert Hargreaves, 'it gradually became accepted that the public had a constitutional right to know what their elected representatives were up to'."

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 Professionas '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."

Additional reporting: PA