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by Joe Conason
Saturday, Aug. 18, 2001 at 4:25 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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