Big Oil Gag Order Against Newspaper Thwarted by Twitter Users

twitter trafigura scandal trending map

“Trying to suppress information in the age of social media is like trying to put out a forest fire with a garden hose,” Catherine Mayer writes in Time. That seems to be more true than ever, if this latest bizarre case to hit the UK is any indication.

In an aggressive power play, representatives of the oil trader Trafigura, the London-based law firm Carter-Ruck, had obtained a secret injunction in September to prevent the country’s Guardian newspaper from revealing the existence of a report commissioned by Trafigura on an alleged dumping of toxic waste off the Ivory Coast in 2006. The corporate lawyers also tried to block the Guardian from covering a written question about the case that was submitted to Parliament this week by MP Paul Farrelly.

Twitter users began a heated debate about the actions of Trafigura, pushing the company name high into trending topics. Big-time Twitterer Stephen Fry posted there: “Outrageous gagging order. It’s in reference to the Trafigura oil dumping scandal. Grotesque and squalid.” While the buzz built, the Guardian met with Carter-Ruck. Soon the name of the MP and his question were out on Twitter, and Carter-Ruck responded by backing off the injunction.

Stephen Shotnes, a media-law specialist with the London law firm Simons Muirhead & Burton, then told Time, “It’s been enshrined in our law for 300 years that there’s freedom of reporting of parliamentary proceedings. I would like to think that what would have happened is that the Guardian would have trotted off to court today and the injunction would have been lifted anyway. The likely impact of Twitter was to speed up that process.”

This case of mobilizing social media to exert pressure on companies and get the truth out, despite opposition, is one more example of the power of the people, amplified by technology. From Jeff Jarvis’ Dell Hell to outrage over Facebook Beacon, it’s clear that everyone is increasingly under scrutiny, especially big companies and institutions. It’s getting harder and harder to stop news from spreading around the globe — which will hopefully help bring about more transparency and responsibility, and freedom for all.

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