On April 13th 2016, in an article written by our colleague Fanny Pigeaud, who knows Cameroon extremely well, Mediapart reported on the fight by two local small business owners to get the Bolloré group to respect a court judgement in their favour (read her article here). The dispute had at that point been going on for 23 years and had led to the pair's financial ruin. This took place against a backdrop in which, through its pervasive presence in the country's economic activities, the Bolloré group – run by French billionaire Vincent Bolloré - imposed its power on the political and legal authorities in Yaoundé.
Via its lawyer Olivier Baratelli the Bolloré group immediately sought one of the customary procedural gags it attempts whenever journalists investigate its activities or even simply report on the protests or challenges that these activities give rise to. Fanny Pigeaud's own article that day predicted this, with its opening lines stating: “The reader should be warned: this article could land its author and Mediapart in court, as the Bolloré group has got in the habit of pursuing media who raise potentially embarrassing issues for it. That could not be worse than what Célestin Ohandja and Thomas Mabou have gone through: for the last 23 years these two Cameroonian citizens and their families have been waiting for Bolloré to respect a court judgement, after a wrong that left them completely ruined.”
At the first hearing at a court in Nanterre, in the western suburbs of Paris, on January 8th 2019 the Bolloré group succeeded in getting us convicted. It was a severe verdict that, on top of fines, required us to remove all the incriminating passages or be forced to pay damages. Moreover, it was a judgement that included some unusual judicial reasoning as the court, in deeming that our investigation was “incriminating”, confused the defence of justification, which means producing irrefutable proof of the defamatory words, and that of good faith, which requires that there was a legitimate and serious investigation.
In particular, this first hearing was marked by an incident - which without doubt went against our case - that was criticised by our lawyer Emmanuel Tordjman. The Bolloré group suddenly produced a mysterious Cameroonian judicial judgement that appeared to contradict the court decisions (including a judgement from Cameroon's Supreme Court) on which the two bosses were relying to claim what they were owed. In our film Media Crash (see here, in full and in French, on Mediapart), which came out this year, Fanny Pigeaud, Emmanuel Tordjman and the daughter of one of the Cameroonian bosses recount what is, to say the least, a mysterious episode.
Meanwhile, Vincent Bolloré, his group and his African subsidiary, had lost on appeal. On February 10th 2021 the court of appeal at Versailles acquitted Mediapart and Fanny Pigeaud, highlighting the “basic value of freedom of expression” and above all pointing to the “factual basis of the documents produced” to justify our investigation. Our opponents appealed against this decision, at a hearing in which Mediapart was represented by Claire Waquet. In a judgement delivered on October 11th the criminal division of the Cour de Cassation rejected their appeal, meaning their judicial defeat is now final.
In its reasoning the Cour de Cassation first of all stated that the “article [by Mediapart] deals with a subject that is in the general interest, given the multiple activities of the Bolloré group which is particularly influential in Africa”. The court then underlined that the “contentious words are not based uniquely on the unverified declarations of third parties but also on a bundle of documents that tend to supports these words, including the unimplemented decision of the Supreme Court and the letter from the Banque Internationale pour le Commerce et l'Industrie du Cameroun, confirming the legally-binding nature of the decision [ordering the Bollore group to compensate the two Cameroonian bosses]”.
In summary, the Cour de Cassation upheld the decision to acquit us on appeal in these terms: “The words being prosecuted were in line with a debate in the public interest, that is to say the activity of the Bolloré group in Africa and its actions with regards to two Cameroonian entrepreneurs whom it is said to have ruined: and they were based on a sufficiently factual basis of declarations of third parties supported by the unimplemented decision of the Supreme Court and the letter from the Banque Internationale pour le Commerce et l'Industrie du Cameroun, confirming the legally-binding nature of the decision; accordingly, taking account of this context and this factual basis, the defendants [Mediapart and Fanny Pigeaud] could not be reproached for a lack of caution in expression in such a way as to deprive them of the defence of good faith.”
When the first court found in its favour the Bolloré group was quick to revel in the verdict, and found many willing outlets in the media. When it lost on appeal it stayed silent, while the news story from press agency AFP reporting our acquittal was ignored by the same media. We are thus counting on the readers of this blog to spread and share this final verdict, in order to make it known that, just like the Altice group in its recent attempt to censure our fellow site Reflets.info (see the call for solidarity from the Fonds pour une Presse Libre - FPL - here), the Bolloré group will not succeed in silencing the independent press and public interest journalism.