Friday, July 16, 2010

Chevron Swift Boat Tactics Prevail: Appeals Court Orders Filmmaker to Turn Over Ecuador Footage

After a court hearing yesterday in the legal battle between Chevron and filmmaker Joe Berlinger, a 3-judge appeals panel has issued a disturbing ruling.

According to The Los Angeles Times:

A federal appeals panel has ruled quickly that though Joe Berlinger does not have to surrender all 600 hours of outtakes from his film "Crude" to Chevron Corp., the documentary filmmaker must immediately hand over several categories of unused film footage.

The article goes on to explain what the court is ordering turned over:

While the judges said a full opinion would follow, they did order that Berlinger give Chevron footage not appearing in "Crude" showing counsel for the plaintiffs in the environmental lawsuit (who discuss trial strategy in the film); experts in the proceeding (some of whom Chevron has accused of partiality); and current or former Ecuadorean government officials (which the oil company says colluded with the plaintiffs' lawyers).

Importantly, the ruling also confined Chevron's usage of the footage to litigation, arbitration, or submissions to official bodies, explicitly preventing the company from using the footage for publicity purposes.

Berlinger, his attorney Maura Wogan, and prominent First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams – who wrote a high-profile friend-of-the-court brief in support of Berlinger's fight to protect his footage – all made cautious statements about being pleased with the ruling. While it's clear that the appeals panel significantly narrowed the original order by District Judge Lewis Kaplan, and upholds the principle that a documentary filmmakers' outtakes are protected journalistic materials, it's hard not to see this as another victory for what I called Chevron's "Swift Boat Tactics" in a previous post on this blog.

In a statement released after the hearing yesterday (but before the panel's ruling later in the day), attorneys for the 30,000 indigenous people and campsesinos in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest who continue to suffer from Chevron's oil contamination, said:

Chevron's legal theatrics in New York are part of a larger strategy created to evade responsibility for creating the world's worst and longest-lasting environmental catastrophe. Today's hearing was part of a much broader effort by Chevron to launch multiple litigations in various states and countries to hide the company's massive legal and reputational problems in Ecuador from its own shareholders, employees and the public. One thing that is certain is that Berlinger's video outtakes, just like the material in Crude, contain even more evidence that Chevron engaged in reckless misconduct in Ecuador and then concocted a fraudulent cover-up to conceal it from authorities.

Evidence from the trial shows that Chevron – in the form of wholly-owned subsidiary Texaco – poisoned a large swath of formerly-pristine rainforest in Ecuador's Amazon region, leading to skyrocketing rates of cancer and other oil-related illness for tens of thousands of residents. Chevron's own audits disclose the company deliberately dumped billions of gallons of toxic wastewater directly into rivers and streams in order to cut costs. The company also dumped millions of gallons of crude and abandoned hundreds of open-air, unlined toxic waste pits in the midst of communities who suffer the results of contamination that continues to leech into soil and groundwater.

Facing the mountains of incontrovertible evidence of its responsibility for massive suffering in Ecuador, Chevron is trying to shift the entire fight to new battlegrounds.

Because its guilt is so obvious, Chevron instead focuses on attacking the legal process in Ecuador, questioning the motives of those trying to hold the company accountable, and using every legal and PR trick in the book to delay a verdict in the trial, distract the public and its shareholders from its liability in Ecuador, and drain the resources of the people demanding full cleanup of its oil pollution.

With this latest ruling, Chevron has further refined its dishonest and abusive strategy for evading accountability, but the people in Ecuador are far from giving up.

– Han

Han Shan is the Coordinator of Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign.

1 comment:

  1. Having just returned from a two-week trip to Ecuador and having just watched Crude twice, I am appalled by this news. Outtakes from documentaries are no different from a reporter's notes - there should be no rights of a defendant to claim these, especially in an ongoing case! I will make sure that everyone I know hears about this and becomes more aware of this situation.