Wild Coast activists law suit used to silence, intimidate, says rights group

INTIMIDATION: Centre argues that allowing corporations to sue experts for defamation stifles free speech

27 November 2017 - 07:34 By Ernest Mabuza
The Australian company Mineral Commodities' is known for its abortive effort to mine titanium in the ecologically sensitive Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape. File Pic.
The Australian company Mineral Commodities' is known for its abortive effort to mine titanium in the ecologically sensitive Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape. File Pic.
Image: Gallo Images/GO!/Ruvan Boshoff

The Centre for Applied Legal Studies has made a court bid to be allowed, as friend of the court, to join a case it claims would be detrimental to freedom of expression.

The centre claimed in its submission to the court that Australian company Mineral Commodities' defamation suit against the Centre for Environmental Rights was "strategic litigation against public participation" to silence and intimidate opponents.

The company is known for its abortive effort to mine titanium in the ecologically sensitive Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape.

In May, company subsidiary 'Mineral Sands Resources' claimed two environmental rights attorneys, Tracey Davies and Christine Reddell, and community activist Davine Cloete had defamed it in their lecture presentation about the company's "environmentally destructive" mining operation on the West Coast. The trio made the comment at the University of Cape Town's Summer School in January.

The lawyers and the activist are defending the lawsuit, claiming their statements were made in the exercise of their rights to protect the environment.

This is the second time the company has taken lawyers and activists to court for defamation.

The company and its CEO, Mark Caruso, are also suing Cape Town attorney Cormac Cullinan, Amadiba Crisis Committee activist Mzamo Dlamini and social worker John Clarke for defamation in relation to comments they made about the company's involvement in a separate project.

Centre for Environmental Rights executive Melissa Fourie said the suit against her lawyers and the activist was "strategic litigation against public participation" intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with "the management and costs of a legal defence until they abandon their criticism or opposition".

She said the suit was also aimed at sending a message to activists that they opposed the company at their own risk.

The Centre for Applied Legal Studies asked to be admitted as friend of the court to present evidence on the nature and effect of this type of suiton academic freedom.

In its application, the centre's Lisa Chamberlain said this type of suit "had the effect of closing down space for public participation as it discouraged free expression and public participation by making it costly".

She argued that academic comment should generally be respected and guarded.

"To not do so would have a self-censoring effect on academics which would limit the pushing of boundaries in the fields of study in which they are engaged and force them to limit themselves in the interrogation of case studies for fear of lawsuits," she wrote.

The University of Cape Town has also applied to be admitted as friend of the court.

The defamation case is expected to be heard next year.

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