Globalization's glad prophets tell us that when the golden arches of McDonald's finally encircle the world, liberty will flourish beneath them. But so far, the evidence that open economies promote open societies is hardly conclusive -- and today there is a case pending in the courts of the United Kingdom that suggests a far less happy prospect: that the suppression of free speech and independent journalism suffered in other countries may someday cross international borders as easily as a shipment of frozen hamburger.
The plaintiffs in this case are Barrick Gold Mining, a huge firm based in Canada, and Barrick's chairman, Peter Munk, a Toronto multimillionaire with many powerful friends such as former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and former U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush. The defendants are Guardian Newspapers, London publisher of the Guardian (which I have occasionally written for), Britain's premier liberal daily, and the Observer, its Sunday paper.
On Nov. 26, 2000, the Observer published "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy," a column by investigative reporter Gregory Palast (who has written for Salon) that outlined the cozy relationship enjoyed by the Bush family and the Barrick interests. Palast, who happens to be an American citizen, pointed out that Barrick's U.S. subsidiary, Barrick Goldstrike, had donated over $100,000 to Republican committees in recent years; that Goldstrike had previously obtained a very sweet deal to mine gold on public lands in Nevada, pushed through during the final days of George H.W. Bush's presidency; and that the former president had landed on Barrick's payroll after leaving office, to peddle his influence with foreign leaders in exchange for a salary and stock options.
Palast's column went on to discuss other Barrick ventures in Indonesia, Zaire and, most controversially, Tanzania, where he mentioned a report by Amnesty International alleging that in 1996, a company later bought by Barrick had participated in the "extrajudicial killing" of dozens of small-scale artisanal miners, in order to clear the Bulyanhulu gold pits, a rich site to which the company claimed title. The story behind that alleged incident is long and somewhat murky, but this much is clear: Several independent newspapers in Tanzania reported in August 1996 that as many as 52 miners were buried alive when bulldozers operated by Kahama Mining Co. Ltd., a firm later acquired by Barrick, filled in the pits, assisted by armed troops. The miners had until then successfully resisted KMCL's attempt to evict them from the land, a tract some 30 miles south of Lake Victoria.
Those appalling stories, since buttressed by eyewitness accounts, were denied by the repressive Tanzanian government, which had sided with the company against the local miners in a legal dispute over the property, and later refused to mount an official inquest into the charges. Survivors and volunteers were reportedly prevented by the government from attempting to exhume bodies from the site.
While steadfastly repeating similar denials that anyone was killed when the miners were removed from Bulyanhulu, Barrick disowns any responsibility for the disputed events of 1996 because the Canadian company didn't acquire KMCL until three years later in 1999.
The company's own documents indicate, however, that its officials were well aware that its prospective subsidiary was using aggressive methods to rid the site of thousands of native miners. Those so-called artisanal prospectors had to be removed to facilitate extraction of what is now conservatively estimated to be $3 billion worth of gold ore.
In a speech to shareholders last May, Barrick's president and CEO boasted that "prior to our acquisition, we followed the progress at Buly for five years, remaining in close contact with the [KMCL] senior management team. We did our homework -- and when the opportunity presented itself, we moved quickly to acquire the property. But we did it with discipline: For an attractive price, and only after we became comfortable with Tanzania as a place to invest."
A Barrick corporate spokesman was unavailable for comment. In court filings, Barrick representatives have suggested that the atrocity charges were fabricated by local miners and political opponents of the multinational in Tanzania.
The explosive charges of mass murder reached Amnesty International, which reported briefly on the incident in its 1997 report on world human rights and in its two subsequent annual reports. Under pressure from Barrick and the Tanzanian government, Amnesty revised its report on Bulyanhulu in its 2000 report. Because the Tanzanian authorities have persistently stonewalled Amnesty's request to conduct an investigation, the human rights organization's rules prevent it from saying that the charges have been verified. But human rights lawyers and parliamentary dissidents in Tanzania provided Palast with evidence of the live burials that he found compelling.
How many miners, if any, may have died to make the Bulyanhulu mine safe for Western exploitation remains unknown. But Palast was certainly accurate in citing Amnesty's original reports. Unfortunately for him, though, there is no right under British libel law to repeat previously published material, as there is in most instances under American law.
Almost immediately after Palast's column appeared, Barrick’s litigious chairman, Munk, filed a libel action in the British courts, where the laws are notoriously restrictive of press freedom, and where truth alone is not a defense. His legal advantage is amplified by the mismatch in resources between Barrick -- one of the five largest firms on the Toronto stock exchange -- and the trust that publishes the Guardian. Under the circumstances, both Palast and the Observer have little choice but to try to settle the case, as investigative journalists in Britain are so often forced to do.
But the Barrick attorneys, who have denounced the Observer column as "false and defamatory," are demanding much more than a mere retraction or correction. They are making another, much more ominous, demand. As a condition of settling the case, Barrick insists that Palast must remove the offending column from his U.S.-registered Web site.
In other words, Barrick is cleverly using the libel statutes of a nation without a Bill of Rights to suppress an unfavorable article in the United States, where Palast (and his Web site) would be protected by the First Amendment.
And Barrick has gone still further, by threatening litigation against both Palast and a courageous Tanzanian human rights lawyer named Tundu Lissu, who has dared to gather evidence of the Bulynahulu atrocity -- including witness statements and names of the deceased -- on behalf of a Tanzanian environmental and human rights group.
Even more outrageously, Barrick is attempting to force Palast and the Observer to acknowledge publicly that an "independent investigation" by Amnesty International established that the horrific burial never happened. Yet what Amnesty actually said in its last report on Bulyanhulu was that the government had rejected Amnesty's call to "open an independent judicial inquiry," and that the organization thus "was unable to substantiate the allegations of deaths." On the advice of their British lawyers, Amnesty officials will no longer comment on this matter. Their prudent silence is abetting Barrick's libel suit, and jeopardizing the ability of journalists and human rights monitors to report on corporate malfeasance.
Barrick's lawyers have various other quibbles with Palast's column, few of which would be entertained by a fair-minded judge in the United States. Their chief concern involves Bulyanhulu, perhaps because their client's venture is financially supported by the World Bank, whose regulations prohibit lending to projects tainted by armed violence. And the embarrassment caused by further circulation of the Bulyanhulu story might frighten away figures such as Bush, Barrick board member Vernon Jordan and other eminences who have promoted the company's fortunes abroad.
So far, Barrick has avoided any such consequences. The official opening of its huge mine at Bulyanhulu, attended by Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa and other dignitaries, proceeded as scheduled on Wednesday, despite local protests and some unfavorable coverage in the Tanzanian media. Aside from the Observer column, Western news outlets have taken little notice of the controversy.
According to Palast, he remains perfectly willing to publish Barrick's side of the story. "If there's an error, I'll correct it; a misinterpretation, I'll clarify it. I'm a reporter, I'm not the pope, I'm not infallible. What I can't do is cover up evidence or say a lie is the truth. If Barrick has a case to make, evidence to present, I'll print it."
What Greg Palast dared to expose were a few of the most unappetizing aspects of globalization, from the employment of former heads of state as corporate fixers to the dispossession (or worse) of native populations when they pose an obstacle to corporate profit. What the award-winning journalist didn't anticipate, however, was that he and his writing would provoke a dangerous experiment in the globalizing of corporate "information management."
Joe Conason writes about political issues for Salon News and other publications. For more columns by Conason, visit his column archive.
Copyright 2001 Salon.com