Friday, May 21, 2010

Chevron Tries to Silence Critics of Its Ecuador Environmental Disaster

Cross-posted from The Chevron Pit blog:

Chevron is exhibiting some awfully thin skin lately over its Ecuador environmental disaster.

A clear pattern is emerging where the company, its lawyers, and its public relations firms try to intimidate critics of its Ecuador problem into silence. Award-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger, who recent made a movie documenting the company's abuses in Ecuador, is the latest victim. That has gotten Chevron on the bad side of prominent journalists and filmmakers such as Bill Moyers, Trudie Styler and Michael Moore.

Chevron has admitted to dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste into Ecuador's Amazon to cut costs, decimating indigenous groups and creating an outbreak of cancer that affects thousands of people. For years, the company has engaged in abusive litigation to evade accountability for a clean-up.

Unlike the BP disaster in the Gulf, Chevron (via its predecessor company Texaco) discharged this waste on purpose. And unlike BP, Chevron's executives have buried their heads in the sand and refused to accept responsibility for the clean-up.

The increased pressure on Chevron – 60 Minutes did a highly unflattering segment on the company recently – seems be taking a toll.

Take look at Chevron's attacks on Free Speech just in the past year:

  • Filing frivolous lawsuits to "punish" critics: Chevron, via its new law firm Gibson Dunn, initiated a "malicious prosecution" lawsuit in a California federal court to punish a 75-year-old lawyer, Cristobal Bonifaz. Bonifaz had brought a separate lawsuit against Chevron on behalf of a handful of individuals for health claims related to the company's Ecuador disaster in San Francisco federal court. A federal judge turned the tables on Chevron, finding the Chevron action violated a California law that bars nuisance lawsuits designed to suppress Free Speech. The judge dismissed virtually all of Chevron's claims against Bonifaz. The California law (called Anti-SLAPP) used by the court against Chevron was created to prevent legal attacks brought to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of defending a frivolous lawsuit. The decision was a tremendous setback for Gibson Dunn, which has a reputation for being paid millions to protect companies like Chevron from being held accountable for their human rights abuses.

  • Attempting to intimidate journalists and gain access to their files: Chevron recently launched an unprecedented legal attack on award-winning documentarian Joe Berlinger to force him to allow the company to rummage through 600 hours of video footage Berlinger shot for the documentary, CRUDE. The movie – which has won 22 awards from film festivals -- chronicles the struggle of the 30,000 residents of the Ecuadorian rainforest to hold Chevron accountable for systematically polluting their lands. Chevron's lawsuit prompted a group of filmmakers that includes 20 Academy Award winners and many more nominees to write an open letter in support of Berlinger stating that Chevron's effort "will have a crippling effect on the work of investigative journalists everywhere." Filmmaker Michael Moore has stated, "The chilling effect of this is, someone like me, if something like this is upheld, the next whistleblower at the next corporation is going to think twice about showing me some documents if that information has to be turned over to the corporation that they're working for."

  • Barring critics from public events: At the Chevron-sponsored Houston Marathon, a team of runners was barred from participating in the event, and threatened with arrest, for attempting to distribute materials critical of Chevron's human rights record in Ecuador. The race manager told the runners that "higher ups at Chevron were freaking out." At the time, runner Maria Ramos stated: "It is sad that the Chevron Houston Marathon – which raises awareness and money for many important causes – would deny the rights of participants to appease a corporate sponsor that is clearly ashamed of its human rights record."

  • Attempting to pressure news outlets to silence critics: Chevron has used pressure tactics to force major media outlets to prevent advertisements critical of the company from being published. Chevron responded to an ad campaign from the Rainforest Action Network by directing its lawyers and public relations firms to leverage the company's influence and demand that the New York Times and Washington Post pull the ads. Despite Chevron's complaints, the New York Times ran the advertisements. However, the Washington Post initially succumbed to Chevron's pressure and pulled the ads temporarily. Of course, the fact Chevron was contemporaneously paying for the publication of advertisements attacking its critics was of no small irony.

  • Taking out advertisements attacking critics: Chevron has taken out multiple paid advertisements in Ecuador, in the United States, and across the internet accusing the Amazon community leaders suing Chevron of being liars, frauds, and con men. Chevron has also taken out ads attacking the independent court-appointed expert in Ecuador, the judge, and other participants in the lawsuit. The use of paid public advertisements to attack and intimidate court officials is unethical and would result in sanctions against the company's lawyers if it were done in the United States.
  • Chevron's "scorched earth" approach to its critics is pathetic, to say the least. But that's what happens when some of Big Oil's corporate leaders don't want to be reminded that they are responsible for the discharge of more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into the Amazon Rainforest.

    But the facts are the facts. While we can understand Chevron's desire to forget about the mess it made in Ecuador, and to wish that its critics would go away, it's time for the company to stop trying to silence the opposition.  

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