What if the Trafigura case happened in Turkmenistan?

The big tech/politics story of this week is the victory of the Guardian – abetted by hordes of Twitter activists – over Trafigura, an energy company – abetted by hordes of lawyers (Trafigura has allegedly been responsible for dumping toxic waste in the Ivory Coast). Confusion over the exact stipulations of a court injunction issued ...

The big tech/politics story of this week is the victory of the Guardian - abetted by hordes of Twitter activists - over Trafigura, an energy company - abetted by hordes of lawyers (Trafigura has allegedly been responsible for dumping toxic waste in the Ivory Coast). Confusion over the exact stipulations of a court injunction issued in the case prevented the Guardian from reporting on a Trafigura-related question that had been asked by a UK lawmaker in the British parliament. After the Guardian complained -- very publicly -- Trafigura's lawyers stated that preventing the Guardian from reporting from the parliament was not the intent of the original injunction and agreed to change its terms, to avoid any future misunderstanding.

Well, before Trafigura's lawyers made that announcement, Twitter users had been outraged by such blatant gagging of a British newspaper from reporting on their own parliament, pushing Trafigura and its lawyers into Twitter's top charts! So, was it a victory for digital activists, who have challenged powerful corporate interests? Well, this is not a lesson that I have drawn from this saga. What we have learnt from the Trafigura story is that digital activism campaigns have much greater chances of success in well-established democracies with a vibrant public life.

Why did Trafigura act so fast? Well, they have a reputation to protect and clients to lose; I doubt that anyone in their right mind would think that forcing a newspaper not to report on what's going on in a national parliament could ever be justified. If Twitter wasn't around, the British yellow press would surely pick up this fight, because it simply looks too tempting not to have a quick jab at the corporate interests here (I think there are simply no cogen arguments to be made in support of the ban on reporting from the Parliament- that's why Trafigura retracted so quickly).

The big tech/politics story of this week is the victory of the Guardian – abetted by hordes of Twitter activists – over Trafigura, an energy company – abetted by hordes of lawyers (Trafigura has allegedly been responsible for dumping toxic waste in the Ivory Coast). Confusion over the exact stipulations of a court injunction issued in the case prevented the Guardian from reporting on a Trafigura-related question that had been asked by a UK lawmaker in the British parliament. After the Guardian complained — very publicly — Trafigura’s lawyers stated that preventing the Guardian from reporting from the parliament was not the intent of the original injunction and agreed to change its terms, to avoid any future misunderstanding.

Well, before Trafigura’s lawyers made that announcement, Twitter users had been outraged by such blatant gagging of a British newspaper from reporting on their own parliament, pushing Trafigura and its lawyers into Twitter’s top charts! So, was it a victory for digital activists, who have challenged powerful corporate interests? Well, this is not a lesson that I have drawn from this saga. What we have learnt from the Trafigura story is that digital activism campaigns have much greater chances of success in well-established democracies with a vibrant public life.

Why did Trafigura act so fast? Well, they have a reputation to protect and clients to lose; I doubt that anyone in their right mind would think that forcing a newspaper not to report on what’s going on in a national parliament could ever be justified. If Twitter wasn’t around, the British yellow press would surely pick up this fight, because it simply looks too tempting not to have a quick jab at the corporate interests here (I think there are simply no cogen arguments to be made in support of the ban on reporting from the Parliament- that’s why Trafigura retracted so quickly).

But, broadly speaking, for networks of activists to exert influence on power structures, those structures have to be responsible, transparent, and fluid. The reason why the anti-Trafigura campaign succeeded is that the U.K. already enjoys a rather healthy democracy, whatever its minor shortcomings are. A similar campaign in Belarus or Uzbekistan would almost surely  fail, because state newspapers have nothing to lose (they are subsidized by the government), the private sector doesn’t exist, and bureaucrats do not really care about their reputations or the reputations of the structures that they represent.

Just look at the failure to mobilize civil society in Azerbaijan over the case of two activist bloggers who are now facing jail sentences. No matter how many Twitter users stand up for their cause, I doubt any digital activism campaigns could sway the Azeri authorities.

For digital activism to be truly effective in repressive environments, one needs ot find a way how to shake (or erode) the rigid foundations of the ruling regime. This is where the power of traditional civil society organizations, intellectuals, and NGOs comes in: without pressure that they exert on the authoritarian state, forcing it to be more accountable (or simply to make mistakes), digital activism would be useless. Digital activists are already light years ahead of most regimes; the same, unfortunately, cannot be said about human rights or politicial activists.

Evgeny Morozov is a fellow at the Open Society Institute and sits on the board of OSI's Information Program. He writes the Net Effect blog on ForeignPolicy.com

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