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Skepticism and freedom

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The video that could see Sanal Edamaruku jailed for “blasphemy”

At Leicester Skeptics in the Pub on June 19th, I’ll be talking about the link between skepticism and freedom of speech.

It’s hard to find a more pressing example of the problems that skeptics can face when powerful institutions threaten freedom of speech than that of Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalist Association. On May 10th, Sanal went on Indian TV to debunk a purported “miracle” at a Catholic Church in Mumbai. Now, after local Catholic groups reported him to the authorities, he is facing a criminal prosecution for “deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community”.

The Rationalist Association have set up an online petition calling on the Catholic community to withdraw their complaint, and urging the Catholic authorities elsewhere in the world to speak out against the prosecution.

The Catholic Church in England and Wales has a Twitter account here if you would like to send them a polite message urging them to speak out against the persecution of Sanal Edamaruku.

Things are also reaching a critical point here in the UK as the Libel Reform campaign seeks to ensure that the government’s proposed changes to our laws really do ensure that people asking difficult questions are properly  protected from vexatious prosecutions. The Libel Reform Campaign are now appealing to all those concerned about freedom of speech in Britain to contact their MP and join a mass lobby of Parliament on June 27th.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 18, 2012 at 9:10 pm

BBC (nearly) runs film praising Rwanda’s dictator, “supported” by company linked to ruling party

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Update: Many thanks to Nick Wallis, who tells me that the film was pulled from the BBC schedules prior to being aired and never actually went out. Will update again if I can find out more…

Last year I blogged about the Rwandan government’s $50,000 deal with the US PR firm Racepoint, whose strategy includes promoting “Rwanda’s Visionary Leader… highlighting President Kagame and his visionary leadership”, while  “communicating the successes of Rwanda with key stakeholders in the political and financial elite communities”.

The PR firm…  outlines “a consolidated set of tactics to publicize both Rwanda and President Kagame“. This will initially involve “leveraging top print and broadcast outlets to communicate the Rwanda success story… and, in the process, validate it based on their credibility”, together with “a proactive campaign that leverages the web to seed stories favorable to Rwanda”.

Racepoint singles out  the Huffington Post as a particular online media target, together with “careful seeding across the blogosphere” to “initiate an offensive to control the organic search on Rwanda and set the agenda in print and broadcast”.

One of the key themes within the PR strategy’s “Education and inform program” would include:

The Rwandan Miracle: Healing of a Nation – We will highlight the rapid healing of the Rwandan nation, it will rely on visuals to drive the story home, Including inviting a handful of top-tier influencer media into the country to observe and Interview people in society.”

So I was very interested to hear about a new 45-minute film, reportedly due to air on May 12th and 13th on BBC World News, called “Rwanda-17 – Healing a Nation”.

The blurb from the film paints a heartwarming picture of the country’s under-17 football team, which it suggests “represents Rwanda’s breathtaking evolution and hopes for a better future, with good leadership and unity at the heart of not only sporting success but also a nation’s efforts to achieve reconciliation and prosperity.”

“What is it about Rwanda? What it is it that you’ve got *so* right?” asks the interviewer in the 2-minute trailer. His respondent tells him that “every ship” needs to have “a good captain”.

“Our team today, to play well, *they* a good captain, they need a good coach. They need somebody who has a vision. This is what we have in Rwanda.”

The shot then cuts to an interview with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame: “As the captain of this ship, what would you say you need to deliver to the people?”, his friendly interviewer asks. “We want to leave poverty behind us. We want to leave any kind of conflict behind us”, Kagame tells him.

This will doubtless come as good news to the UK-based dissidents who Rwanda’s government tried to murder last year… And the exiled opposition leader who has twice avoided assassination in South Africa, though it’s sadly too late for the opposition politician found beheaded in Rwanda in 2010.

There is a longer version of the trailer here, where it is stated that the film was “supported by Crystal Ventures”.

According to a DFID-funded research paper on Rwanda’s development, Kagame’s ruling party “funds itself by a combination of member contributions and the dividends paid by a private company which it fully owns… formerly known as Tri-Star Investments S.A.R.L. and now registered as Crystal Ventures Ltd.”

The Crystal Ventures website, meanwhile, states that:

“The company is wholly owned by Rwandan business people who pooled resources together to meet challenges of economic recovery and take advantage of growth opportunities in a virgin environment.”

Opposition activists, however, have claimed that the company is effectively controlled by the Rwandan President.

Google reveals lots more speculation – but far less concrete detail – about Crystal Ventures and its background. I’d be grateful for any input from readers on good sources to help unravel this…

Written by Richard Wilson

May 11, 2012 at 4:38 pm

“Breaking Their Will” – book review in the New Humanist

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My latest book review is in this month’s New Humanist magazine, looking at a harrowing account of religiously-motivated child abuse and neglect: “Breaking Their Will”, by Janet Heimlich. This month’s edition also features the excellent Alom Shaha and Martin Robbins.

The New Humanist magazine is published by a registered charity, the Rationalist Association. It’s a great example of the growing trend for non-profit organisations to fill the gap left by the decline of the mainstream news media, covering niche and public interest issues that are covered superficially or ignored by commercial newspapers. If you want to support this project, you can subscribe here.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 22, 2012 at 10:51 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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The 1930s advert that Mercedes Benz would rather forget

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…found by a family member in an old magazine from the 1930s:

Written by Richard Wilson

March 18, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Posted in Amnesia

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Gove’s Folly? The mystery of Durand and Saint Cuthman’s

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Mystery surrounds a multi-million pound government grant to the charity behind one of Michael Gove’s flagship Academy schools.

Last year, the Durand Education Trust was awarded £17.3 million to build what the Telegraph heralded as the “first fully free state-run boarding school” .

Durand Primary School in Stockwell, South London, had earlier, said the Daily Mail, “used proceeds from a leisure and student accommodation business it runs” to buy St Cuthman’s, the site of a former special needs centre in Midhurst, West Sussex.

The school’s plan was to  give its pupils an alternative to poorly-performing local secondary schools when they completed their time at Durand. The new secondary school would be based in the countryside to keep the children far away from “stabbings and the constant threat of trouble”.

“Teenagers will be transported from London on Monday mornings to spend five days and four nights in the country, returning on Friday evenings, all free of charge”, reported the Mail .

To those tempted to ask whether public money would be better spent improving the local secondary schools rather than building an entirely new one, 50 miles away, and then shipping hundreds of children there and back every week, the school had a good answer:

“It wouldn’t cost [the government] a penny”, Durand’s Executive Head told the Spectator. While the secondary school’s core expenditure would be funded by the state in the normal way, “we’d cover the costs of boarding from the profits of our health club”.

According to the Economist, “Nothing quite like it has been tried before”.

According to the Daily Express, “Parents… are delighted their youngsters will get the chance to enjoy a Harry Potter-style education away from the area’s notorious gang culture.”

“Unlike other state boarding schools, it will not charge for accommodation”, explained the Guardian. “Instead, its running costs will come out of private income the school generates from a swimming pool, gym and block of flats.”

Media coverage has been so positive, in fact, that the PR and lobbying company employed by Durand to promote the St Cuthman’s project, secure government funding, and “make Durand Academy synonymous with educational excellence” last year won an advertising industry award for the £200,000 campaign.

It may also have helped that the school has repeatedly deployed libel lawyers Carter Ruck against critics of the school’s management, and is currently suing Lambeth Council over three emails in which its chief auditor raised concerns about its financial affairs.

Yet amid all the glowing news reports, two big problems seem to have been overlooked.

1. Notwithstanding claims that Durand purchased the St Cuthman’s site “using its own funds”, and  “using income from a gym and flats on its London site”, Companies House records  appear to show that the Durand Education Trust actually took on a debt of £1.9 million to buy the property – over half of its reported £3.4 million sale price:

2. The reported profits from Durand’s business activities cover only a fraction of the school’s boarding costs. It appears that the project will therefore need millions of pounds in additional funding in order to become financially viable – at a time when other schools are having to cut back.

State boarding school lodging costs reportedly range from £7,500 to £12,000 per year for each child. Even at the lower end of that scale, Durand would need more than £4.3 million per year to board the 625 secondary pupils it hopes to take in. In the last three years, the school’s business arm, London Horizons, has generated £304,964 (2009), £255,157 (2010) and £350,120 (2011) for Durand Primary School and the Durand Education Trust – an average of just over £300,000 – less than 10% of the money the school looks to require.

According to “Spears Wealth Management Survey”, Durand has recently launched a public fundraising campaign urging wealthy individuals to sponsor children at the new school, costing this at £3,800 per child, per year. But even at that level, this would still require around £2,375,000 per year for 625 children. This is a sum that many long-standing charities would struggle to raise in a good year, let alone a start-up fundraising programme focussing on a single state school in the midst of a global recession.

When I asked for a copy of the budget and costings for the boarding school project, the Department for Education refused to reveal it, claiming that “Disclosure of certain information would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the Department, the proposers or both by adversely affecting bargaining positions and resulting in less effective use of public money”.

So I made a Freedom of Information request to Durand Academy asking for:

“Details of how much Durand paid for the purchase of the St Cuthman’s site”, “The amount of any funds borrowed by Durand to finance the purchase” and “The terms of any such loan, and details of how any such loan is
to be repaid”.

I got the following reply:

1.    Details of how much Durand paid for the purchase of the St Cuthman’s site in Sussex.

ZERO (DAT did not purchase the site)

2.    Details of how Durand financed the above purchase.

NOT HELD.  See above

3.    The amount of any funds borrowed by Durand to finance the purchase.


4.    The terms of any such loan, and details of how any such loan is to be repaid.

See above

When I queried this, pointing out that a video on Durand Academy’s own website states that “Durand used its savings to purchase a site in the countryside”, I got no response.

But the school appears to be working on the basis – at least when it comes to Freedom of Information – that the Durand Education Trust is legally a separate entity from Durand Academy, and that FOI requests to the latter do not cover the former.

I subsequently told Durand that I’d seen information suggesting they were in debt, and that this seemed to raise questions about the viability of the St Cuthman’s project and the government’s decision to award it so much money at a time of “extreme national austerity”.

They issued a strong denial, stating that:

“Your assertions and source are factually incorrect on this matter. Durand Academy is not in debt, nor has liability for the land purchase and it would be wrong to suggest either.

“On the issue of value for money, we must object. More than any other school we are aware of, Durand has worked tirelessly and independently over the last twenty years to add significant value and opportunities for local tax payers, without impacting the public purse. Without additional central government support Durand has: improved the condition and value of the school estate substantially; absorbed a run-down failing primary school; completely refurbished that school to a high specification as a specialist early years site; expanded the number of places available to the local community; built state-of the art leisure facilities that children enjoy free use of and the wider community benefit from; reduced class sizes; subsidised healthy meals and; invested in a secondary school project that will provide choice and opportunity for local parents.

“We appreciate very much the ‘extreme national austerity’ that you refer, and that is why we believe that the Government has chosen to support a project and a project team that has never asked for hand-outs and are self-sufficient, has always made maximum efficient use of resources and have a strong record of delivery, not only in education, but in delivering projects on time and to budget.

“The £17.34 million pledged by the Government is some £8m to £15m less than has typically been spent on establishing a new secondary school to serve inner London in recent years. This money will help to deliver a secondary state boarding school from scratch, providing life changing opportunities for thousands of children. This project is innovative and ambitious, but we can assure you it is viable and we are committed to its delivery.”

Confused, I asked whether this applied to Durand as a whole – ie. not just Durand Academy but also the Durand Education Trust (for whom my usual correspondent at the school is listed as the main contact).

I was told: “As stated below this is from Durand Academy. Durand Education Trust is a separate entity. I am an administrator at Durand Academy and field correspondence for Durand Education Trust.”

So I asked my correspondent to refer my previous query about the financial situation to the Durand Education Trust. At the time of publication, a follow-up request for clarification had been acknowledged, but not replied to.

Given that the Durand Education Trust is legally constituted as an “independent charitable trust”, rather than a government body, it is not clear whether the Freedom of Information Act can be applied to it.

It may be that I’ve missed something obvious here (in which case, please do email me or leave a comment below). Or it may be that Durand has a substantial, and previously-undisclosed, source of additional income that can plug the financial gap.

But at the moment it is difficult to see how the Department for Education will be able to avoid committing many more millions each year to this experimental project – leaving millions less available for other, less favoured schools within the education system.

Update: I have now had some comments from the Durand Education Trust. Here’s what they say:

“1. Some of your estimates are so over the top as to be risible. For instance, though there will be costs associated with providing boarding (principally the extra costs associated with keeping duty staff on site overnight for safeguarding) the idea that these would amount to almost £30,000 per night, which is what is consistent with the lower figure in the range you cite, is frankly absurd.

2. DET did not take out a bank or building society loan to fund the purchase of the site. Any information you have to the contrary is false.

3. The figures you quote for London Horizons revenues were figures supplied to you in respect of sums historically paid over to Durand Primary School and Durand Academy. They do not reflect the level of income accruing to DET now or in the future.”

The Durand Education Trust also complain that “Whilst we are prepared to be as transparent as commercial sensitivities allow, we note that almost everything you have written about Durand in the past… has been unfair or inaccurate, and sometimes both. It is hard to resist the conclusion that your reporting is actuated by malice and/or a political agenda…”

So it looks like the mystery will continue for a while yet. I’d welcome any comments from readers that could help to clear things up.

On the financial question, the figure of £7,500 to £12,000 per year per child for state school boarding costs comes from a broadly positive Telegraph article, in which Durand got a prominent mention (“More cash needed for state boarding schools, warns head“, November 28th 2011). Over a 39-week school year where 625 children were boarded for 4 nights per week, the lower end of this scale would indeed amount to approximately £30,000 per day, which certainly is a lot of money.

It’s worth noting, however, that the cost-per-child cited by Durand in their new fundraising campaign – £3,800, would, under the same analysis, equate to around £15,000 per day for 625 children – or £24 per child. While this is significantly less, it is still a substantial sum, and with a total yearly cost (£2,375,000) that would still be much higher than the reported annual income generated, to date, by London Horizons (£350,120 in 2011).

It is not yet clear how the costs of transporting 625 children on the 50 mile trip to and from West Sussex each week would fit into the above analysis, or where the money for this would come from.

I have asked the Durand Education Trust for more details of the things I’ve written that they feel have been unfair or inaccurate, and invited them to produce a “right to reply” piece for publication on this blog, putting their side of the story. I will update this post if and when I receive a reply.

In literal terms, The Durand Education Trust appear to be correct in stating that “DET did not take out a bank or building society loan to fund the purchase of the site”. Records from Companies House show that the company which lent them £1.9 million was not a bank or a building society, but a firm called Alderley Land. More on that in due course…

Written by Richard Wilson

February 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Factchecking on Freedom of Information: Has FOI really done nothing to improve accountability?

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“We have a wretched Government here which has… caused the resignation of me and many others, because it was this Government that introduced the Freedom of Information Act” – Conservative MP Anthony Steen, on being exposed in the MPs’ expenses scandal.

There’s been a lot of coverage this week about a Ministry of Justice study which among other things claimed, according to the Guardian that “Civil servants do not believe the Freedom of Information Act has increased accountability”.

This suggestion seemed surprising, given the number of high-profile cases where FOI has helped expose abusive behaviour by our public officials, most notably the MPs expenses scandal. Although the damning details were ultimately made public via a leak, the writer and activist Heather Brooke had fought a long and well-publicised legal campaign to establish that Parliamentary expenses were subject to FOI, and it is widely acknowledged that the existence of FOI requests by Brooke and others helped to precipitate the news story.

This is the case even for some of those exposed in the scandal. When the Conservative MP Anthony Steen was forced to resign after it emerged that he’d spent £90,000 of public money on his country home, he specifically blamed the Freedom of Information Act, saying:

“I think I have behaved impeccably. I’ve done nothing criminal. As far as I’m concerned and as of this day, I don’t know what the fuss is about…

We have a wretched government here which has completely mucked up the system and caused the resignation of me and many others because it was this government that introduced the Freedom of Information Act, and it is this Government that insisted on the things which caught me on the wrong foot… What right does the public have to interfere with my private life? None.”

It’s difficult to think of a clearer example of FOI-induced accountability than this. So I had a look through the Ministry of Justice study. Here are some extracts:

“FOIA has resulted…  in the disclosure of significant amounts of information which has enabled the public to hold public authorities to account.” (page 60)

“The Government believes that the expansion of the Act… will continue to promote openness, transparency and accountability across the public sector.” (page 66)

“% of FOI officers who agreed that the following objectives were being achieved:

- increased accountability                                                   78%” (page 84)

“surveys of officials and stakeholders across public authorities found that the FOIA had indeed made central and local government more accountable” (page 88)

“the evidence suggests that the FOIA has had considerable success in achieving its primary objectives of greater openness and accountability… Claims that the FOIA would undermine civil service neutrality or ministerial accountability have likewise proved unfounded” (page 90)

Conclusion: The FOI legislation set out to improve transparency and accountability, and evidence to date indicates this has been achieved…” (page 99)

Whoever told the Guardian that the study showed “civil servants do not believe the FOI act has increased accountability” appears to have been mistaken…

Written by Richard Wilson

February 20, 2012 at 7:26 am

Alleged bribery of eyewitnesses by Trafigura and MacFarlanes

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From The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Privacy and Injunctions

1. The Dutch media have aired detailed allegations that a major London law firm, acting on
behalf of Trafigura, offered bribes to witnesses in a civil case being brought in the UK courts
against the company over the toxic dumping incident. Despite the gravity of these
allegations, they have not been reported in the mainstream UK media. Only one outlet – the
magazine Private Eye – has made any mention of them. One journalist has told me explicitly
that they want to run this story but dare not for fear of the legal repercussions.

2. Media outlets outside the UK have consistently reported that the 2006 toxic waste
incident caused at least 15 deaths. In contrast, many UK media articles about the case have
made no mention of this central allegation. In one instance, Trafigura successfully sued the
BBC for libel over the allegation, and in others it was able to secure a retraction. No legal
action has been taken against media outside the UK who have reported on the alleged

3. Trafigura is currently under investigation by the Dutch authorities over an alleged bribe of
466,000 Euros made by Trafigura from its UK bank account to Jamaica’s ruling People’s
National Party (PNP). The Dutch investigation has been widely reported in Jamaica. Yet
despite the fact that the allegedly corrupt payments originated in the UK, our media have
not covered it.

Alleged bribery of eyewitnesses by Trafigura and MacFarlanes

In May 2010, the Dutch media published detailed allegations of corruption relating to
Trafigura and a major London law firm, MacFarlanes. In a series of interviews aired by
NOVA TV, a number of the drivers involved in dumping the waste alleged that they had
been offered bribes by MacFarlanes to give false testimony to the UK courts in a civil case
against Trafigura over the dumping incident (

According to Radio Netherlands Worldwide:

The drivers who dumped the waste now say they were approached by Trafigura’s lawyers and asked
to sign false statements. They were persuaded to lie about the nature of the waste and to deny they
had suffered health problems.

“There are some sentences in the declaration that are not true, they are lies,” says one of the
drivers who was approached by Trafigura.

The drivers say they each received 650 euros in exchange for signing the false statements. They
were told that the statements would be used in the London court case Trafigura was fighting against
the Ivorian victims…

The drivers say they were approached a second time by Trafigura, this time to sign a statement that
they had never received money from the company. They claim to have received 2,300 euros each
for the second statement.

Trafigura and MacFarlanes deny these allegations, saying that such behaviour would have
been “grossly unethical” and “would have constituted serious professional misconduct by
MacFarlanes”. (

Nonetheless, given the nature of the allegations, and the fact those making them were
prepared to do so on camera, it is striking that – other than one piece in Private Eye – the
mainstream UK media has made no mention of them.

To the best of my knowledge, Trafigura and MacFarlanes have taken no action against any of
the Dutch media that have reported the story.

Death toll from the 2006 toxic waste incident

“I was supposed to do an interview on British radio the day that the court in Abidjan had
come to a decision and had sent two people to jail. I was told that I should in no way
mention Trafigura because of possible libel claims.” – Marietta Harjono, Greenpeace, May

In May 2009, Trafigura issued libel proceedings against the BBC over a Newsnight feature
which alleged that the 2006 incident had led to a number of deaths and serious injuries. In
early December 2009, the programme, and its accompanying article, disappeared from the
BBC’s website without explanation (although it reappeared on the website Youtube soon

On December 17th, the BBC announced that it had agreed to withdraw its allegations about
the Probo Koala incident, pay damages, and broadcast a public apology. Some reports
suggested that fighting the case could have cost the BBC up to £3 million had it come to
court. (

Commenting on the settlement, Trafigura noted that the BBC had ‘stated that Trafigura’s
actions had caused a number of deaths, miscarriages and serious and long-term injuries in
Abidjan in what Newsnight claimed “may be the biggest incident of its kind since….Bhopal.”’.
Trafigura described these as “grave, yet wholly false allegations”, over which it had “no
alternative but to commence libel proceedings”

Yet Trafigura appears to have taken no legal action over a November 2009 New York Times
article which described the Probo Koala incident as “one of the worst toxic dumping
scandals in years”, which had “become notorious as a kind of African Bhopal”, and claimed
that “About 108,000 people sought treatment for nausea, headaches, vomiting and
abdominal pains, and at least 15 died”.

On February 22nd 2010, the Independent newspaper published an apology and ‘correction’
for its September 2009 article, “Toxic shame: Thousands injured in African city” (

On April 30th 2010, the Times issued a ‘correction’ over a March 26th article which had
referred to allegations that the Probo Koala incident had led to 17 deaths. The correction
stated that “the dumping was not carried out by Trafigura… but by an independent local
contractor without Trafigura’s authority or knowledge. Furthermore, in September 2009
lawyers for Ivorians who were suing Trafigura over injuries allegedly caused by the dumping
acknowledged that at worst the waste could only have caused flu-like symptoms”.

To the best of my knowledge, Trafigura has taken no action against any media outlet outside
of the UK that have made similar allegations. Trafigura continues to deny that its waste
caused any deaths.

Alleged bribery of Jamaica’s ruling party

According to the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper, Trafigura is currently under investigation by
the Dutch authorities over an alleged bribe of 466,000 Euros made in 2006 by Trafigura
from its UK bank account to Jamaica’s ruling People’s National Party (PNP). While some of
these allegations have previously been reported in the Guardian, to my knowledge the
current investigation has not been mentioned anywhere in the UK media.

The Gleaner reports that a senior politician, Bruce Golding, who was until recently Jamaica’s
Prime Minister, has made a formal complaint to the Dutch authorities asking them to
investigate whether this payment amounted to a criminal offence in the Netherlands.

According to the Gleaner:

Golding also told Dutch authorities that on August 23 [2006], Charles Dauphin, president of
Trafigura, arrived in Jamaica and met with government ministers… He said no public announcement
of these meetings was made to the people of Jamaica… He stated that in early September 2006,
between September 6 and 12, prior to the PNP’s annual conference, Trafigura transferred
€466,000 or more than J$31 million from its account in the United Kingdom to an account in
Jamaica known as CCOC Association…

The address provided by CCOC Association is c/o Portmore Gas, Bridgeport, St Catherine … . One of
the signatories on this account is Senator Colin Campbell, general secretary of the PNP and a
minister of government having portfolio responsibility for information and development.”
The document stated that shortly after the funds were received into the account, two cheques
totalling $30 million were issued payable to SW Services (Team Jamaica), both bearing Campbell’s

Golding noted that on Thursday, October, 2006, the chairman of the PNP, Robert Pickersgill,
confirmed payment of the funds by Trafigura and described it as an unsolicited donation to the PNP
for its upcoming political campaign.
( )

Greenpeace International reports that: “Trafigura is thought to have bribed a Jamaican
politician with the apparent aim of extending an oil contract of Nigerian oil.”

Trafigura insist that the money was a political donation and that they have done nothing


Trafigura’s “reputation management” strategy has not prevented the above information from
being read, and shared, in the UK. But it has inhibited the ability of our domestic media to
debate these very serious issues openly and robustly, and left the British public reliant on the
foreign press to inform them of the full facts behind a major public interest story. The
Trafigura case highlights a worrying gulf between our own media laws and those of the
United States and our European neighbours, and raises serious questions about the state of
freedom of expression in the UK.

7 December 2011

Written by Richard Wilson

February 18, 2012 at 9:15 am