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Tuesday, 13 October 2009 18:49

Trafigura gagging order lifted as Twitter and Guardian win free speech victory

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News is breaking that solicitors Carter Ruck has now "dropped its claim that to report parliament would be a contempt of court" just before a legal challenge was due to be heard in the High Court. Twitter users can celebrate playing their part in helping to defend the freedom of the press. iTWire reveals all...

When The Guardian newspaper was prevented from reporting on British parliamentary proceedings by a court order, Twitter users took it upon themselves to uphold the 1688 Bill of Rights and defend freedom of speech.

Amongst other the immutable civil and political rights granted by the 1688 Bill of Rights is that of freedom of speech. Specifically that the proceedings in Parliament shall not be impeached or questioned in any court.

Yet on the evening of Monday 12th October, The Guardian reported how it was not being allowed to report on parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds after a judge granted a gagging order against the newspaper.

"The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck" reporter David Leigh said, adding "Today's published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is 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".

The newspaper was also prevented, by the order, from explaining to its readers why it was being prevented from reporting the parliamentary proceedings. "Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret" as Leigh puts it.

Guardian Editor, Alan Rusbridger, had this morning Tweeted that he hopes to "get into court today to challenge ban" and it is actually very apt that the announcement was made on Twitter. Without Twitter, it has to be said, most people around the world would probably not have heard of either Carter-Ruck (the solicitors which took the action) or Trafigura (the company they are representing).

Indeed, as I write (less than 24 hours after the story started getting noticed on the micro-blogging site) Trafigura, Carter-Ruck and CarterRuck provide three of the top four trending keywords on Twitter. How's that for freedom of speech?

Although, mysteriously, the #trafigura hashtag which was the top trending keyword before I went to bed last night had vanished from sight, and site, this morning. The where's and why fores have yet to be explained by Twitter although conspiracy theories abound.

So what's the fuss actually all about? The mystery of who Trafigura are and how Twitter has become the upholder of democracy when the media fails, are explained on the next page along with the previously banned question in full.

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So what is going on here and why has the traditional British freedom of the press been trodden upon with such a big boot. Ask any British journalist and they will tell you that Media 101 says 'you can report on parliamentary proceedings without fear of legal repurcussion' it's a fundamental right.

Which is why journalists, who now inhabit Twitter like seagulls at a rubbish tip, quickly started digging up whatever they could and posting their thoughts as tweets. The reference to Carter Ruck solicitors in the original Guardian story was enough for them to discover that an MP was to ask a parliamentary question (today) regarding how the British Government would protect whistleblowers and reporters.

Now the gagging order has been lifted, we can publish the full text of the question concerned and you can see exactly what all the fuss has been about:

"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" to be asked by Labour MP Paul Farrelly of Justice Secretary, Jack Straw.

Back in September it was The Guardian which covered the toxic waste dumping story and claimed that UK oil trader Trafigura's libel lawyers, Carter-Ruck, had blocked it from reporting beforehand. Only after Trafigura announced it was paying millions of pounds in compensation, but without admission of any liability over the allegations from 2006, was The Guardian finally free to publish its account.

Now Twitter is back on the case after it got wind of the Guardian gagging order over reporting a parliamentary question. Not only were important questions asked about how this had been allowed to happen but there were even 'Ungag the Guardian' twibbons being worn by many users to show support.

Those tweets not only called for MPs to debate the matter, but also for the mainstream media to cover it. Pleas that did not go unanswered. Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, has today tweeted that he was very concerned about the story and his party was "planning to take action on this".

It would seem that all the pressure paid off, and I for one am convinced that the power of Twitter played a large part in common sense prevailing in what was a vital case concerning freedom of the press. It's nice to see that the political power of Twitter has not been diminished by recent cases where The Powsers That be have tried to prevent it from being used as a tool for the people.




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