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Exporting corporate control

by Joe Conason Saturday, Aug. 18, 2001 at 11:25 AM

A gold-mining company with ties to the Bush family tries to muzzle a muck-raking journalist.

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 0,000 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


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 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
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