01:46, June 21 195 0 theguardian.com

2017-06-21 01:46:03
Major publishers move to defend Greenpeace in dispute with logging firm

The world’s biggest book publishers have been dragged into a bitter dispute between a US logging company and environmental campaigners Greenpeace. It follows legal action taken by the logging company, Resolute Forest Products, which campaigners and publishers fear has implications for freedom of speech.

The dispute centres on claims by Greenpeace about the company’s logging practices in sections of Canada’s boreal forest, which are home to indigenous peoples as well as endangered wildlife. Greenpeace alleges that Resolute: “Is responsible for the destruction of vast areas of Canada’s magnificent boreal forest, damaging critical woodland caribou habitat and logging without the consent of impacted First Nations.”

Resolute strongly disputes the claims. Last year, it followed up a 2013 defamation and economic interference lawsuit launched in Canada with a $226m (£178m) US claim under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act (Rico). Passed in 1970 to counter organised crime, the use of the act has been criticised as an attempt to silence both Resolute’s critics and for setting a “dangerous” precedent for whistleblowers and NGOs.

Publishers, including Penguin Random House and Murdoch-owned HarperCollins, became involved after a petition signed by more than 100 authors in support of Greenpeace was handed in at US publishing trade show BookExpo. The petition called for publishers using Resolute products to use their clout to pressurise the company into dropping the lawsuit and addressing alleged logging practices.

Hachette Livre, whose UK subsidiaries publish among others Ian Rankin, JK Rowling and Cressida Cowell, expresseds concern that the Rico action poses a threat to free speech and could be used to silence environmental organisations at a time when the US government has stated its intention to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement on climate change.

Emphasising that Hachette had “no intention of taking sides”, but was “reaffirming our commitment to free speech”, Ronald Blunden, senior vice-president of corporate communications said: “It is the [scale] of the damages being sought in the suit. We are concerned that it is about muzzling Greenpeace at a time when the US government is pulling out of the Paris accord on climate change.”

He added: “You need these NGOs to be able to do their work and be whistleblowers, because if they disappear, and if the US pulls out of the Paris accord, who will be left to speak up and defend the environment?”

In a letter to Resolute, HL chairman Arnaud Nourry described the use of racketeering law in the US as excessive and asked if there was another way in which the company could respond to the accusations. The logging company’s CEO Richard Garneau responded by providing a detailed rebuttal of the activists’ claims and responding to the gagging charge: “Freedom of speech is not the same as libel and slander.”

Other publishers have expressed frustration with the way the dispute has escalated, with several describing it, off the record, as a mess. In a statement from Simon & Schuster US, senior vice president and director of corporate communications Adam Rothberg noted the claims, counterclaims and arguments made by both parties about “complicated issues, that, as publishers, we have little ability to judge or verify”. He added: “We do, however, recognise the urgency of current environmental issues, the unalloyed right to free and responsible free speech in advocating for environmental and other causes and the right to defend one’s reputation.”

Publishers on both sides of the Atlantic said pulp from the disputed forests is not used in their books and emphasised the use of “vigorous” oversight by the Forest Stewardship Council. In a statement sent to the Guardian, Penguin Random House said that it “strives to procure paper from suppliers who source responsibly”. HarperCollins issued a similar statement.

It is unlikely that the case will come to a swift conclusion. The next hearing will be held in California. But publishers may be forced to take economic action to end the row. Blunden said although Hachette remained a customer of Resolute, should the publisher’s authors demand its wood pulp is not used in their books, the company may rethink its buying policy. However, he added, no such protests had yet been made.