By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA Columnist, Right to Report ::
Buried in the fine print of the voluminous Trans-Pacific Partnership is a section that could send journalists and whistleblowers to prison for exposing corporate wrongdoing or disclosing even the vaguest information that a company decides is a “trade secret.”
In the infamously secretive trade deal, even that life-altering nugget was under wraps until Wikileaks revealed it in October. A month later, after New Zealand released the full TPP text, the United States followed suit.
Until then, leaks were the only reason we knew anything about the 12-nation deal, negotiated in secret since 2008 by the Obama administration, a handful of other country’s officials and the elite business leaders who will richly benefit. No voices spoke for workers’ rights and safety, the environment or health issues such as food labeling.
Under the TPP, companies can prosecute whistleblowers, journalists, their sources or anyone accessing information through a “computer system” if that information negatively affects a company’s ability to do business. If that sounds vague, it is.
“Our fear is that the TPP doesn’t define what a trade secret is,” said Maira Sutton, global policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Our fear is that situations that occurred at Sony Pictures earlier this year in which hacked documents were released online could be considered criminal liability. Journalists, who didn’t participate in the hack, but wrote stories about what was contained in the documents might be charged under the trade secrets rule of the TPP.”
The “trade secrets” provision is specifically designed to intimidate journalists, limit public access to important information on corporate and government wrongdoing and stifle dissent in the name of national security.
Want to know if a company is shipping tainted meat to the United States? If a factory’s pollution is making people sick? If workers are being hurt or killed in hazardous jobs? Sorry, those are secrets.
Like all presidents of either party, President Obama can’t resist a trade deal. He and the TPP’s supporters in Congress want us to believe that it is simply an international treaty that promotes trade and economic growth, lowers trade barriers, and enhances productivity and competitiveness.
There’s nothing simple about ambiguous “trade secrets” effectively getting the same protection as matters of national security. Criminal charges are threatened if released information is “detrimental to a company’s economic interests, is related to a product or service intended for international commerce, or for perceived purposes of financial gain or commercial advantage.”
Civil libertarians, First Amendment advocates, the media and even elected Democrats who oppose the president on TPP say the agreement would have a chilling effect on the public’s right to know.
“At the very least, we would have expected some language about making sure that countries protect the freedom of the press and if reporting on the agreement was in the public’s interest there would be some necessary protection for that,” the EFF’s Sutton said. “None of those strong protections are in there. The trade secrets provision is a great example of the powerful influences of corporations on policymaking.”
The primary authors and negotiators of the TPP, affecting more than 800 million people and 40 percent of all world trade, are 500 corporate “trade advisors” from big oil, pharmaceutical and entertainment companies, according to Project Censored, a website that exposes and opposes news censorship.
Only a few sections of the TPP deal with trade itself. The bulk of the agreement is devoted to protecting corporate interests in the areas of copyright infringement, internet freedom, privacy and intellectual property rights.
Even though the U.S. government didn’t post the text for public consumpion until November 2015, TPP looks like a done deal. The president has until the beginning of February to sign it into law. Then the U.S. International Trade Commission will issue a report to Congress, which will then have 60 days to vote it up or down.
“The problem with the trade agreement is that the provisions that enforce corporate rights are all binding and all the things in the public interest are not binding,” Sutton said. “It’s up to the public to contact their Congressional leaders to let them know that we know the TPP doesn’t serve the public interest.