The Bolloré group has lost its lawsuit against Mediapart

Vincent Bolloré, his group Bolloré and its subsidiary SA Bolloré Africa Logistics have finally lost the legal action for defamation they had launched against Mediapart. In a ruling on Wednesday, the Versailles appeal court found in favour of Mediapart and journalist Fanny Pigeaud whose report was the target of the complaint, underlining that her investigation was conducted in ‘good faith’, notably because of its solid factual base.

Having become one of the principal players on the French media landscape, after taking control of broadcaster Canal + and with his ambitions regarding the Lagadère group, Vincent Bolloré is not, for as much, a great exponent of the freedom of the press. Whenever his interests are concerned, notably in Africa where the multiform economic power of his group symbolises the persistence of French neo-colonial domination, he never has any hesitation in bringing legal action against those media which take too close a look at them. The press freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders and journalistic collectives have regularly denounced gagging orders intended to intimidate and dissuade any independent investigation into his activities.

Mediapart contributor Fanny Pigeaud, a journalist specialised in covering West Africa and who has good knowledge of Cameroon, where the Bolloré group has a powerful presence, did not escape the latter’s vigilance. In an article for Mediapart, published on April 13th 2016, she reported on the combat of two small businessmen in Cameroon in their campaign to make the Bolloré group respect a legal ruling in their favour. The publication of the report was immediately met with a formal complaint for defamation, filed by the group’s lawyer Olivier Baratelli.

The complaint was so automatic that it was forecast in the opening lines of the report: “The reader should be made aware that this article could lead the reporter and Mediapart before a court, given that the Bolloré group has made a habit of bringing proceedings against media which raise issues that are potentially awkward for it. That could not be worse than what Célestin Ohandja and Thomas Mabou are living through: for 23 years, these two Cameroonian citizens and their families have been waiting for Bolloré to respect a legal ruling following a wrong that completely ruined them.”       

The first hearing of the case by the court in the western Paris suburb of Nanterre on January 8th 2019 found in favour of the Bolloré group and against Mediapart and Fanny Pigeaud. In what was a harsh ruling, beyond its decision to fine us, we were ordered to delete all the passages of the report that were in question, failing which penalties would be imposed. It was above all an unusual ruling regarding the law governing the rights of the press: in finding that our investigation was unfairly one-sided, it confused the issue of the truth of the facts, which supposes the providing of irrefutable proof of the alleged defamatory contents, with that of acting in good faith, which is based on demonstrating that a legitimate and thorough investigation had been carried out.

By claiming in its judgment that our article was in “bad faith”, that “as an investigative journalist, Fanny Pigeaud is required to be irreproachable in her work of investigation”, the court infringed a protection of press freedom which is built into the wise jurisprudence of France’s 1881 founding law on the rights of the press. This upholds the right to inform on an issue of public interest on condition that a serious investigation has been carried out, with respect of the right of reply and employing moderation in its presentation, even if the published article can be subject to reproach or contain imprecisions; this is what is called “in good faith” under the laws governing the press.

That is precisely what was recognised by the Versailles court of appeal in its ruling in our favour on February 10th 2021, when it dismissed the case (and all of the demands) brought against us by Vincent Bolloré, his group and its African subsidiary. In its decision in favour of Mediapart, the appeal court underlined “the essential value of the freedom of expression” and, above all, “the factual basis of the documents produced” for the justification of the investigation by Fanny Pigeaud. The court’s findings vindicated the arguments presented forcefully by our lawyer Emmanuel Tordjman, from the law firm Seattle.

Following the initial and now overturned ruling by the Nanterre court, the Bolloré group was quick to make the decision known, prompting numerous articles in the press about the finding against us, for example here and here, relayed also by the website of the BBC’s French-language African service and on the website of French daily Le Monde. Yet, on the opposite, at the time of the publication this Thursday of the original French version of this blog post, 24 hours after the Versailles appeal court’s ruling in our favour, there remained a deafening silence about the Bolloré group’s defeat. Even though it had been duly informed of the appeal court’s ruling, French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP), which had been swift to relay the news of the initial ruling against us, had not yet reported it had been overturned.

The grip over news reporting that is growing with the taking of control of the media by an economic oligarchy, of which Vincent Bolloré is a notable figure, also involves the capacity to smother information which is considered troublesome or unpleasant. This legal battle which Mediapart has now bravely won illustrates – if ever the demonstration was necessary – the vital need for a truly independent press.

> Update on Friday February 12th 2021:  AFP did send out a report, on Thursday at the end of the morning, but it mysteriously could not be found, and it has not been published across the media unlike the agency’s report of the first ruling in the case which, announcing the decision against us for a “one-sided” investigation, was widely relayed across news sites and TV news channels. It is true that the headline of the agency’s report on our acquittal by the Versailles appeal court – which found, to the contrary, that our investigation was thorough and demonstrated a solid factual basis – was phrased in such a manner that it might not be noticed, giving the impression that the court hearing had taken place…in Cameroon. Translated from the original French, the headline reads: “Cameroon: Mediapart, sued for defamation by Bolloré, acquitted on appeal”.

Given the lack of coverage it received, I have copied out below the text (in French) of the AFP report on Thursday:

Cameroun : Mediapart, attaqué en diffamation par Bolloré, relaxé en appel

Versailles, France | AFP | jeudi 11/02/2021 - 10:53 UTC+1 | 402 words

Une journaliste de Mediapart a été relaxée en appel en France de poursuites en diffamation intentées par le groupe Bolloré, pour un article de 2016 qui lui avait valu une condamnation en première instance, a indiqué jeudi à l’AFP la cour d’appel de Versailles.

Fanny Pigeaud, spécialiste de l’Afrique, avait été condamnée en 2018 à une amende de 1.500 euros avec sursis pour un article publié sur le site d’information intitulé "Comment le groupe Bolloré a ruiné deux entrepreneurs camerounais". Le directeur de la publication, Edwy Plenel, avait lui écopé d’une amende de 1.500 euros ferme.

Le tribunal correctionnel de Nanterre, en banlieue parisienne, avait alors estimé que l’enquête incriminée était "incomplète", "à charge", et "non contradictoire" et que les deux prévenus s’étaient montrés par conséquent "de mauvaise foi".

La journaliste s’était défendue à l’audience en disant avoir tenté de joindre en vain le groupe Bolloré et ses conseils pendant près de trois semaines.

Mercredi en revanche, la cour d’appel de Versailles, près de Paris, a confirmé le caractère diffamatoire des propos poursuivis mais elle a relaxé les prévenus au titre de la "bonne foi", jugeant que la base factuelle de l’enquête était "sérieuse et suffisante", s’est félicité Me Emmanuel Tordjman, le conseil de Mme Pigeaud. 

"C’est une grande victoire pour la liberté d’expression", a estimé l’avocat.

Interrogé par l’AFP, l’avocat de Bolloré Olivier Baratelli a dit ne pas comprendre "l’intérêt que Mediapart porte à cette histoire de plus de vingt ans", affirmant qu’elle ne "concernait pas" le groupe, la société visée n’appartenant pas encore au géant français selon lui.

Dans cet article, la pigiste estimait que deux entrepreneurs camerounais s’étaient retrouvés ruinés parce que le groupe français n’avait pas respecté une décision de la justice camerounaise prise en 1993 l’intimant de payer à leur société des dommages et intérêts. Leurs marchandises, des plantes médicinales, avaient en effet été stockées par une filiale de Bolloré, la Socopao, et avaient subi une avarie, rendant le produit invendable.

L’article évoquait une "collusion" entre le pouvoir camerounais et le groupe français.

Mediapart avait remporté sa précédente passe d’armes avec l’empire Bolloré, aux côtés d’autres médias et d’ONG, en mars 2018: le tribunal correctionnel de Paris les avait relaxés alors qu’ils étaient poursuivis par la Socfin - une holding propriétaire de plantations en Afrique et en Asie et dont le groupe Bolloré est actionnaire - pour avoir fait état d’"accaparements" de terres par cette société.

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