From The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (Penguin 2003)
Of the thousands of bless you and f— you messages that arrived at The Guardian papers after we broke the Florida vote swindle story in November 2000, none ruffled my editors’ English reserve but one: a letter demanding we retract the article or else. It was from Carter-Ruck, a law firm with the reputation as the piranhas of England’s libel bar, a favorite of foreign millionaires unhappy about their press. Their letter stated they represented Barrick Corporation — a Canadian-American gold-mining operation that employed George Bush Sr.
Barrick particularly did not like my mention of the stomach-churning evidence that Sutton Resources, a Barrick subsidiary, had buried alive as many as fifty gold miners in Tanzania in August 1996, prior to Barrick’s purchase of Sutton in 1999.
What set their complaint apart from the scores of others we receive from corporations bitching and moaning about my exposes was Barrick’s extraordinary demand. They did not want their denial printed (I’d done that), nor their evidence the story was wrong (I would do that too, if they would provide it). They demanded my paper apologize and pay a tiny fortune for simply mentioning the allegations first reported by Amnesty International. And even that would not be enough. Barrick also demanded we print a statement vowing that my paper had confirmed that no one was killed at the Tanzanian site. Now, I would have been more than happy to confirm that — if I had evidence to that effect. The evidence was, in so many words, “We are billionaires—and you aren’t.”
Lacking a first amendment, Britain has become the libel-suit capital of the world. Stories accepted elsewhere draw steep judgments in London. The Guardian papers receive notice of legal action about three times a day — that’s one thousand libel notices a year. This creates a whole encyclopedia of off-limits topics, including an admonition from our legal department not to disparage the marriage of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman — sent the day after they announced their divorce. No paper can afford to defend against all these actions. The Guardian papers operate on a small budget from a not-for-profit foundation. No doubt about it, Barrick could break us in defense costs alone.
In Canada, where libel laws are similar to Britain’s, Frank magazine had picked up my story. Frank swiftly grabbed its ankles by running that incredible retraction — that no one had been “killed or injured” in the mine clearance. The editor apologized to me; they simply had no resources to fight billionaires. Who could blame them? The first report of the alleged killings in Tanzania came from Amnesty International, whom I quoted. I called their headquarters in London. Courageously, Amnesty refused to help. The organization whose motto is “silence is complicity” announced that, on advice of lawyers, they would be silent.
Barrick made good use of Amnesty’s self-censorship. The company told the court — and the many news outlets around the world that were sniffing around the story — that Amnesty had conducted an investigation and had concluded that “no one was killed in the course of the peaceful removal of miners.” If this were true, I would have retracted the story immediately. I’m not infallible, and nothing would have made me more joyous than to find out those miners were still alive. But Barrick could not produce the Amnesty clearance — no such report could be located. Amnesty said Tanzania had barred them from investigating, so the killings remained neither confirmed nor denied — in short they had never cleared Sutton Resources. But that was off the record. Publicly, the Nobel Prize-winning organization (despite several angry calls to them from Bianca Jagger) continued to hide under a desk, knees knocking.
One excellent reporter, chosen Britain’s journalist of the year, told me just to sign whatever it took to get out of trouble. “That’s just how it’s done here.” Floyd Abrams, who defends the New York Times in the United States and Europe, explained to my astonishment that the truth alone is not a defense in English courts. Photos of dead bodies and body parts in Tanzania meant nothing in our case.
I’m not a Man for All Seasons. Honestly, I was ready to go along with some kind of bum-kissing apology to Barrick, only because at the time I was living on Red Bull, potassium powder and no sleep trying to get out the Florida vote theft story, and I sure as hell didn’t need another distraction.
But I had a problem. Our paper had encouraged an internationally respected expert on human rights and the environment, Tanzanian lawyer Tundu Lissu, familiar with the allegations, to go to the mine. If Lissu said no one died, I’d sign off as Barrick requested. Instead, over several missions to his home country, he sent back more witness statements, photographs of a corpse allegedly of a man killed by police during the clearing of the site, a list of the dead — and a videotape of bones, and a worker going into one pit to retrieve bodies buried, he says on the tape, by the “Canadians”. (Barrick says the bodies were not from the subsidiary’s mine site or, if from the site, the deaths were not the result of the clearance of the site.) In April 2001, when Barrick found out Lissu was asking questions inside the mine site, they sent him and his employer, the World Resources Institute of Washington, DC, a letter outlining a lawsuit if he repeated the allegations concerning the removal of miners.
Then it turned grim. The Tanzanian police, we learned, were hunting for Lissu. Lissu, while in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam, told officials that the allegations of deaths should be investigated. Hardly an inflammatory statement; but the Tanzanian government determined that was sufficient grounds to charge him with sedition.
That’s when I lost all sense of reason. I hinted that if The Guardian fabricated a lie to save a few coins, I might take action against my own newspaper for defaming me as a journalist. I’d never do it; the threat was nuts (and not exactly a career maker), but I couldn’t let Lissu go to jail by going along with an easy lie. The Guardian’s good moral sense slowed the rush to the usual cheap exit from a suit. However, the money clock on legal fees was ticking, making me the most expensive journalist at The Guardian papers.
Bad news. In July 2001, in the middle of trying to get out the word of the theft of the election in Florida, I was about to become the guinea pig, the test case, for an attempt by a multinational corporation to suppress free speech in the USA using British libel law. I have a U.S.-based website for Americans who can’t otherwise read my columns or view my BBC television reports. The gold-mining company held my English newspaper liable for aggravated damages for my publishing the story in the USA. If I did not pull the Bush-Barrick story off my U.S. website, my paper would face a ruinously costly fight.
Panicked, The Guardian legal department begged me to delete not just the English versions of the story but also my Spanish translation, printed in Bolivia. (Caramba!)
The Goldfingers didn’t stop there. Barrick’s lawyers told our papers that I personally would be sued in the United Kingdom over web publications of my story in America, because the web could be accessed in Britain. The success of this legal strategy would effectively annul the U.S. Bill of Rights. Speak freely in the USA, but if your words are carried on a U.S. website, you may be sued in Britain. The Declaration of Independence would be null and void, at least for libel law. Suddenly, instead of the internet becoming a means of spreading press freedom, the means to break through censorship, it would become the electronic highway for delivering repression.
And repression was winning. InterPress Services (IPS) of Washington, DC, sent a reporter to Tanzania with Lissu. They received a note from Barrick that said if the wire service ran a story that repeated the allegations, the company would sue. IPS did not run the story.
I was worried about Lissu. On July 19, 2001, a group of Tanzanian police interest lawyers wrote the nation’s president asking for an investigation — instead, Lissu’s law partner in Dar es Salaam was arrested. The police were hunting for Lissu. They broke into his home and office and turned them upside down looking for the names of Lissu’s sources, his whereabouts and the evidence he gathered on the mine site clearance. This was more than a legal skirmish. Over the next months, demonstrations by victims’ families were broken up by police thugs. A member of Parliament joining protesters was beaten and hospitalized. I had to raise cash quick to get Lissu out, and with him, his copies of police files with more evidence of the killings. I called Maude Barlow, the “Ralph Nader of Canada”, head of the Council of Canadians. Without hesitation, she teamed up with Friends of the Earth in Holland, raised funds and prepared a press conference — and in August tipped the story to The Globe & Mail, Canada’s national paper.
The Toronto-based newspaper was excited: This was big news about one of the richest men about town, Barrick CEO Peter Munk — not to mention their former prime minister Brian Mulroney, George Bush, repression, greed and blood. The rule in the news biz is, if it bleeds, it leads. So they promised Maude a front-page splash if she’d hold off on her public statement.
The Globe & Mail quickly put Mark McKinnon, their best reporter, on the case. Just as quickly, they yanked him off it and told him to fly home from Africa. From page one to page nothing. Barlow was incensed at the decision of the editor. According to Barlow, the editor pleaded that it wasn’t his call — the spike came from “the highest levels.”
While the big shots at The Globe & Mail dove to the mat, spunky little Frank magazine effectively retracted its retraction. They’d seen a videotape with bodies — spirited out of the country by Lissu — and would not stand silent. Barrick insisted the bodies in the films were not from the mine clearance — but Frank wasn’t buying.
Meanwhile, not waiting on that palsied institution, the so-called free press, to act, I issued an alert to human rights groups worldwide. The Guardian’s lawyers went ballistic: In the United Kingdom, one can’t complain of being sued for libel, because under their law, a paper is guilty of defamation until it proves itself innocent. Therefore, publicly defending oneself “repeats” the libel and makes the paper and reporter subject to new damages and court sanctions. Kafka had nothing on the British court system.
The pressure was on. I’m pleased to say that my editor refused to sign the abject, lying retraction — just fifteen minutes before the court-imposed deadline. He told me these encouraging words: “We are now going to spend hundreds of thousands on some fucking meaningless point you are trying to make. I hope you are happy.”
 See Joe Conason’s “Exporting corporate control: A gold company with ties to the Bush family tries to muzzle a muckraking journalist” on Salon.com, July 20, 2001.
From The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (Penguin 2003)