Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Behind The Great Bhopal Hoax

If you were living in Europe or Asia, or were up very early in the U.S. on the morning of December 3, the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, you may have heard the astonishing announcement by Dow spokesperson "Jude Finiseterra" in an interview with the BBC that Dow Chemical had finally agreed to take full responsibility for the 1984 Bhopal catastrophe that killed as many as 20,000 persons. According to Finiseterra, Dow would set up a $12 billion compensation fund for the victims and clean up the site.

Unfortunately, there was no Jude Finiseterra, nor was there a compassionate and repentant Dow. The statement traveled over the wires for two hours before the hoax was revealed.

The rather ingenious plot began with the name of the mysterious Dow spokesman, Jude Finiseterra. Finiseterra, who in real life calls himself Andy Bichlbaum, explained that "Jude is the patron saint of impossible causes, and Finiseterra means 'end of the earth,' which kind of represents the situation there."

Dow, which continues to argue that the Bhopal disaster was caused by sabotage, bought Union Carbide, the plant's owner, in 2001. Carbide had previously paid a whopping $470 million to Bhopal residents in 1989, which came to a grand total of around $500 a person. But that was plenty of money according to a (real) Dow spokesperson Kathy Hunt, who in 2002 assured the world that ?$500 [in compensation] is plenty good for an Indian.?

In an interview with Democracy Now, Bichlbaum expressed surprise they didn't get caught much sooner. In fact, interview ran twice on BBC World and was picked up by the major news wires before the BBC determined that no man named Jude Finisterra worked at Dow and he was an imposter.

And after reading the transcript, it is a bit surprising that the BBC was so completely taken in. According to Finisterra in the interview,
Today is a great day for all of us at Dow, and I think for millions of people around the world, as well. It is twenty years since the disaster, and today I?m very, very happy to announce that for the first time Dow is accepting full responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe. We have a $12 billion plan to finally, at long last, fully compensate the victims including the 120,000 who may need medical care for their entire lives and to fully and swiftly remediate the Bhopal plant site. Now, when we acquired Union Carbide three years ago we knew what we were getting, and it is worth $12 billion. $12 billion. We have resolved to liquidate Union Carbide, this nightmare for the world and this headache for Dow, and use the $12 billion to provide more than $500 per victim, which is all that they have seen. A maximum of just about $500 per victim. It is not plenty good for an Indian as one of our spokespersons unfortunately said a couple of years ago. In fact, it pays for one year of medical care. We will adequately compensate the victims. Furthermore, we will perform a full and complete remediation of the Bhopal site, which, as you mentioned, has not been cleaned up. When Union Carbide abandoned the site twenty years ago, or sixteen years ago, they left tons of toxic waste which continues ? the site continues to be used as a playground by children. Water continues to be drunk from the ground water underneath.
Finiseterra also promised to support the extradition of former Union Carbide president Warren Anderson for trial in India.

The beauty of the hoax was that Dow was forced, on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, to once again publicly remind the world that it would do no more to help the victims or clean up the site. But because Dow responded to the hoax by issuing only a short press release stating that Finiseterra was not a representative of the company, the spoof website Dowethics, decided that Dow needed a little assistance to illuminate the whole situation for the world. They issued another press release on Dow letterhead, explaining that the whole thing was an elaborate, sophisticated, idiotic hoax, and that in fact Dow will not commit any funds to compensate and treat 120,000 Bhopal residents who require lifelong care, will not clean up the Bhopal plant site, will not urge the US to extradite former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson to India, will not release proprietary information on the leaked gases, nor the results of studies commissioned by Union Carbide and never released, will not fund research on the safety of Dow endocrine disruptors (ECDs) considered to have long-term negative effects, and
Most importantly of all:

  • Dow shareholders will see NO losses, because Dow's policy towards Bhopal HAS NOT CHANGED. Much as we at Dow may care, as human beings, about the victims of the Bhopal catastrophe, we must reiterate that Dow's sole and unique responsibility is to its shareholders, and Dow CANNOT do anything that goes against its bottom line unless forced to by law.
On the other hand, some of the Bhopal victims were not pleased with the hoax, according to the Daily Grist:
At least one advocate for the victims saw the prank as malicious. Said Rachna Dhingra of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, "It is a cruel, cruel hoax to play on the people of Bhopal on the 20th anniversary of this tragedy." And to the extent that it raised and then dashed the hopes of these horrifically abused people, she has a point.
But according to Bichlbaum, they hadn't imagined that the hoax would go on so long and get so much worldwide press:
That is the most difficult thing about this. And, in fact, we didn't expect it to run as long as it would. We really thought that the BBC would catch on pretty much immediately or Dow would react even more likely immediately. They didn't react for at least an hour, so there was a much longer time when people thought it was real....Two hours later it was still a story. So that was sad. Also, but at the same time we are talking about two hours of false hopes versus 20 years of unrealized ones.
The whole thing was the brainstorm of the "Yes Men" The "Yes Men" is a group that impersonates famous people, engaging in "Identity Correction" as opposed to "Identity Fraud." As their website explains, identity fraud is where "Small-time criminals impersonate honest people in order to steal their money. Targets are ordinary folks whose ID numbers fell into the wrong hands."

Identity Correction, on the other hand, is where "Honest people impersonate big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else."

Postscript: One of legendary organizer Saul Alinsky's rules for effective action is "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon." And indeed, when they're kicking the shit out of you, a little ridicule -- that also effectively makes a point -- can sometimes go a lot farther than demonstrations, faxes and letters to the editor.

Let's get creative out there.