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Alert! Press Lynching by Libel Law

by Gregory Pelast Saturday, Jun. 30, 2001 at 2:02 PM


In retaliation for the investigative story about the finances of the George W. Bush campaign, Barrick Gold Mining of Canada has sued my paper, the Observer of London, for libel. The company, which hired the elder Bush after his leaving the White House, is charging the newspaper with libel for quoting an Amnesty International report, which alleged that 50 miners might have been buried alive in Tanzania by a company now owned by Barrick.

The company has also demanded the Observer and its parent, Guardian Newspapers, force me to remove the article from my US website, a frightening extension of Britain's punitive libel laws into the World Wide Web. The company has also issued legal threats against Tanzanian human rights lawyer Tundu Lissu, one of the Observer's independent sources and an investigator of the mine-site allegations.

The attack by Barrick and its controversial Chairman, Peter Munk, one of the wealthiest men in Canada, who boasts of his propensity to sue, also aims to gag my reporting on his company's purchase of rights to a gold mine in Nevada - containing billion in gold - for a payment of under ,000 to the US Treasury.

My Observer story, Best Democracy Money Can Buy, looked into the activities of several corporations linked to the Bushes. It was in that article I first disclosed that over 50,000 Florida voters, most of them Black, were wrongly tagged as 'felons,' and targeted for removal from the voter rolls. My follow-up reports in, The Nation, and the Washington Post as well as on BBC-TV's Newsnight provided the basis for the US Civil Rights Commission finding of massive, wrongful voter disenfranchisement in Florida.

My entire continuing investigation is in jeopardy. It is difficult to imagine how my paper, owned by the non-profit Scott Trust, myself and human rights lawyer Lissu can withstand the financial punishment of litigation by the centi-millionaire Munk and his corporation.

In its latest Annual report, Amnesty says it cannot verify the allegations of the mine killings because the government continues to resist an independent investigation. Yet Barrick wants our paper to state what we know to be untrue: that independent investigation found the charges completely baseless. Yet our quoting Amnesty is no defense. Americans cannot conceive of the medieval operation of British libel law. It does not permit the defense of "repetition" - straightforward reporting on the statements of human rights groups are banned, a gag nearly as effective as Burmese law.

Independently of Amnesty, attorney Lissu went to the mine site and provided our paper with witness statements. Tanzanians have offered their services to help defend against censorship in Britain, a poignant reversal for our paper which, with imperial pomp, has launched a 'Press Freedom Campaign' to excoriate developing nations over gagging journalists.

'10 Little Piggies,' Adnan Khashoggi, and The Greatest Gold Heist Since Butch Cassidy

Peter Munk's reputation precedes him. Last year, Mother Jones named him one of America's 'Ten Little Piggies' for his US gold mine's literally 'poisoning the water' through what environmentalists consider polluting extraction practices.

How Barrick got the gold mine is something they would rather we not report.

First, Munk was set up in the gold business by funds from Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. We are being sued for discussing this connection although the information comes from Peter Munk himself, quoted in his biography.

Second, Barrick struck it rich when the company used (or misused, say many) an old Gold Rush law to claim rights on a Nevada mine containing billion in gold by paying the US Treasury less than ,000. They are suing my paper for publicizing this extraordinary transaction, which US Interior Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt called, "the biggest gold heist since the days of Butch Cassidy," and "a form of legalized extortion."

Barrick's suit claims the Observer libeled them by failing to state that Barrick had to spend money to buy other rights and equipment to dig the gold out of the ground. What an odd misreading of our words. We never said the US government mailed the gold bars to Barrick in Canada. We only said that Barrick got the gold mine and the public got the shaft.

The company's CEO has also demanded his lawyers slice a pound of our journalistic flesh for mentioning that he, "made his name in Canada in the 1960s as the figure in an infamous insider stock-trading scandal." Yet, we read this in the Canadian magazine Macleans: "The failure of [Clairetone Corporation] cost Munk his business and his reputation. Most damning were allegations of insider trading that were made after it was discovered that he and [his partner] had sold shares in 1967 just before some of Clairetone's most serious problems became known."

Lynching by Libel Law

The clear purpose of the suit is, as Barrick says, to force the Observer to say the investigation "should never have been published" - an inquiry into those who purchase the favor and influence of the Bush family, not just Barrick. The article was about the blizzard of money whirling around a family of Presidents and their associations. Among other paid favors for Barrick, the former President wrote the dictator Suharto to convince him, successfully, to grant another gold concession to Barrick.

And more than Barrick came into our investigative cross hairs. There was Chevron Corporation, and ChoicePoint, the firm at the center of the racially charged voter purge in Florida. This suit with malicious tone attempts to besmirch our entire investigation and to undermine ours and others further investigations into Bush and Barrick.

The Observer's official history quotes a media critic's statement that the papers new editor,

"... is expected to continue the paper's tradition of crusading reporting as in the Lobbygate investigate investigation."

In that 'Lobbygate' story, well known in the UK, I went undercover with my partner Antony Barnett to expose corruption at the heart of the Blair cabinet.

But the wrath of a Prime Minister is easy to dismiss - and our awards were a pleasant salve. The withering, costly pounding of an enraged corporate power with too much money to spend has chilled reporters' and British newspapers' will to take on the tougher investigative matters. Amnesty is, "silent on the advice of lawyers." And so, the witness statements of those who watched the bodies exhumed, and one who dug his way from the mass grave, will now also remain entombed in legal silence.

How much longer I can hold the line if abandoned by the Guardian's Scott Trust - which is cracking under the weight of legal bills - I cannot say. And the consequences of capitulation to our source and defender, Tundu Lissu and his Tanzanian human rights organization, we cannot imagine.

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Hold on! Hold out! Compatriot Saturday, Jun. 30, 2001 at 3:49 PM

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