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Twitter users undermine attempt to gag UK media

Bloggers and Twitter users thwarted a legal attempt Tuesday to stop Britain's media from reporting the questions posed by a lawmaker in a parliamentary debate, spotlighting the power of new media to influence public policy.


The case involving lawmaker Paul Farrelly had threatened the rights of journalists to report anything debated in Parliament. British law allows the media to report any comments made in Parliament without fear of running afoul of Britain's often draconian privacy and libel laws.

Farrelly had posed written questions to the government Monday that concerned Trafigura, a Netherlands-registered oil trading company accused of dumping waste at sites throughout Abidjan, the main city in the Ivory Coast, but Trafigura's lawyers had obtained an injunction from Britain's High Court that prevented The Guardian newspaper from reporting any details of Farrelly's questions.

The Guardian honored the injunction, but put a story on its Web site Monday and in Tuesday's editions of the newspaper reporting that it has been prevented from discussing parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds — without naming the players in the case.

The blogosphere erupted in outrage.

Bloggers and users of the social networking site Twitter exchanged data on who the case may involve. Through a series of postings that implied — but didn't directly link — the Guardian to its long-running dispute with Netherlands-based Trafigura, the blogosphere pieced together the basic facts of the question and the law firm that sought the injunction, London-based Carter-Ruck.

By Tuesday morning, the terms Trafigura, Carter-Ruck and Guardian were all listed as being among the most-used terms on Twitter. The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, joined in the Twitter debate, posting details on the case from his account.

By the afternoon, Carter-Ruck backed down, and agreed that The Guardian could publish details of Farrelly's question.

"Luckily, it seems that Trafigura and Carter-Ruck had not reckoned with the power of the Internet," said Padraig Reidy, news editor at Index on Censorship magazine. "There is an impulse among Web users that as soon as they are told they cannot know about something, they seek out the details."

The company said its injunction was obtained several weeks before Farrelly posed his questions but acknowledged that the gag order effectively stopped The Guardian from reporting on the issue. It said the order had now been changed.

"There is no question of Trafigura seeking to 'gag' the media from reporting parliamentary proceedings," Carter-Ruck said in a statement.

Under parliamentary rules, lawmakers can submit written questions to government ministers, seeking information relevant on any subject that might be of interest to them. The questions are often used to force an issue into the public domain — or to start a debate either in society or in Parliament itself.

It is highly unusual to seek an injunction to prevent the question — or its answer — from being heard in public. Farrelly had posed the written question Monday to Justice Secretary Jack Straw.

Farrelly asked for Straw to comment on efforts to bar reporting on the Minton report, a study on the dumping incident. Straw will reply to Farrelly's question Wednesday.

"The terrifying aspect of this case is that the High Court ruled against one of the most important aspect of our democracy — that MPs (lawmakers) can ask questions freely in Parliament and the public has a right to know whatever it is their (lawmakers) are saying," said Reidy.

Several thousand people sought medical treatment after waste from a tanker chartered by Trafigura Beheer BV was off-loaded at several sites around Abidjan in August 2006.

Trafigura did not accept legal liability for the incident, but last month agreed to compensate 30,000 people who claim they fell ill. The company has always insisted that the waste was not toxic, but had a mix of gasoline residues, water and caustic sodas used for cleaning.

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