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29 May 1997 Edition

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Shell's dirty PR war

By Dara MacNeil

When confronted with evidence of its complicity in the `legal murder' of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists in Nigeria, multinational giant Shell Oil feigned ignorance and summoned the PR consultants.

The multi-billion dollar corporation launched an expensive, worldwide campaign to convince people of its innocence in the whole sordid affair. But unfortunately for Shell, just as their pleas reached a crescendo, out of hiding came the late Ken Saro-Wiwa's brother. He explained that Shell had offered to intervene on his imprisoned brother's behalf if the latter could be persuaded to call off his campaign against the corporation.

As head of MOSOP - Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People - Ken Saro-Wiwa had fronted an effective struggle to force Shell to pay compensation for the environmental havoc they had wreaked in Ogoniland, in southeastern Nigeria. Since the discovery of oil in the territory in the 1960s, the region's inhabitants have been systematically impoverished by the corporation's non-observance of environmental standards. In addition, MOSOP was seeking royalty payments for the Ogoni people, based on the $40 billion worth of oil Shell had extracted from their land.

MOSOP's campaign had proved so effective that it forced Shell to abandon Ogoniland in 1993. The company has been seeking an opportunity to return ever since.

By way of retribution, the Nigerian regime imprisoned Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists on patently-trumped up charges. On 10 November 1995, all nine were executed.

Since then, Shell has been relying heavily on PR to manufacture a more caring, cosy image of the corporation. However, just as with their earlier attempts at rehabilitation, it is little more than a sham.

Earlier this year, Environment Rights Action published its own assessment of Shell's repeated, heartfelt promises to clean up its act in Nigeria. The report - Shell in Nigeria: Public Relations and Broken Promises - concludes that the company is engaged in little more than sophisticated perception management. Outright lies, is perhaps a better term.

Thus, the report finds that Shell claims of involvement in community projects and financing of community infrastructure development (hospitals, schools etc.) have ``been tailored to public relations concerns.'' It cites the example of one community for which Shell claimed to have constructed a town hall and market. Not so. The authors point out that both were on the verge of completion when the company stepped in, adopted the project and erected its own logo over the area, thereby claiming credit where none was due.

Another example cited is that of a community where Shell operations - far from enhancing the inhabitant's quality of life - actually destroyed the local hospital. Six years on, no new building has replaced it.

In addition, a MOSOP leader who visited Ogoniland earlier this year has passed on his testimony to Irish aid agency Trocaire.

He details how Shell are attempting to bribe and cajole (the army does the rest) residents of Ogoniland into declaring publicly that they want Shell to return to the territory. Shell would then use such declarations as proof to convince a sceptical world.

As the MOSOP leader explains: ``Shell was intensifying its efforts in bribing and coercing Ogoni people into supporting its return to Ogoniland. So bizarre are their recent tactics that the payment of compensation for (recent) spillages was made conditional upon the litigant producing a passport photo of himself and being caught on video supporting Shell's return.''

Israel's empty housing policy

People have died as a direct result of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's decision to proceed with the Har Homah settlement, on Palestinian land in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu, in defence of this pointed insult to the Palestinian people, has claimed the settlement is necessary in order to solve a housing crisis in the area. But it appears the Israeli Prime Minister is, as people in his position are wont to do, being economical with the truth.

Earlier this month, a US study showed that more than 25% of all homes within the controversial settlements are, in fact, empty.

The study - apparently compiled with the help of satellite data - showed that 26% of the housing units in the West Bank stood vacant, while 28% of those located on the Golan Heights and 56% of those in Gaza were also mysteriously bereft of occupants.

Meanwhile, Dedi Zucker of the Israeli opposition party Meretz has revealed that Israel has confiscated 7,500 acres of Palestinian land this year alone, in its drive to further expand the settlement programme.

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