MANHATTAN (CN) – Though they rarely see eye-to-eye, Chevron and the Ecuadorean government agreed to shut the press out of arbitration hearings involving “one of the most highly publicized and most contentious environmental lawsuits in history.”
Originally slated between April 20 and May 7, Chevron and Ecuador’s lawyers have been meeting at an undisclosed location in Washington to decide the fate of a more than $9 billion judgment for oil contamination the Amazon jungle.
Calling the verdict a “shakedown,” Chevron accused the Ecuadorean government of violating the terms of the nation’s investment treaty with the United States by interfering with a trial in its rainforest city of Lago Agrio.
Denying this allegation, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa cast Chevron’s arbitration as an attempt to “bankrupt” his government, and leave itself off the hook for decades of its predecessor Texaco’s drilling in jungle lands.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press supported a bid last month to open these high-stakes hearings to the press and public.
“The case involves thousands of Ecuadorians, claims of environmental destruction of the Amazon rainforest, a multibillion-dollar judgment against one of the largest companies in the world, and allegations of extortion and public corruption,” the media advocacy group wrote in a letter . “Citizens around the globe have a continued interest in the outcome of this dispute.”
Urging transparency “in the interest of justice,” the Reporters Committee noted that the arbitration’s “secrecy will only breed distrust among the public.”
In April, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration responded that its hands were tied because the parties did not agree to bring sunlight to the live arguments.
The court’s senior attorney Martin Doe revealed on Friday that Chevron and Ecuador jointly decided to lock “third parties” out of the doors of the arbitration room.
“However, the fact that the hearing will be held in camera does not mean that the proceedings are confidential,” Doe added.
He continued to defend the openness of the seemingly murky proceedings.
“All of the tribunal’s awards, along with the parties’ pleadings and numerous other documents related to the case, are publicly available on legal research and academic websites and by recourse to the parties themselves,” he wrote. “The parties are also free to distribute the transcripts publicly, in redacted form if necessary to protect information under confidentiality restrictions.”
Reporters currently must rely upon the lawyers, or privately write the tribunal, to access any of the documents currently made public.
There is no public docket for accessing the documents in the Chevron v. Ecuador arbitration, and the tribunal made clear that it is “not minded to create a public record on the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law’s “transparency registry.”
Both Chevron and the Ecuadorean government have faced down criticism for their treatment of the press. The Latin American nation sank 13 spots to 108th place on Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom index for “institutional censorship” by the Correa administration. The U.S.-based oil giant, for its part, has used its litigation in this case to attack reporting by “60 Minutes,” Vanity Fair and documentary filmmaker Joseph Berlinger.
After the latest round of oral arguments, the tribunal said it may release information that the parties mutually desire to make public before reaching a decision that cannot be appealed.
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