Mediapart wins appeal over Libyan affair defamation case

The court of appeal in Paris has found in favour of Mediapart in our case against journalist Hervé Gattegno. He had sued us for defamation over an article about moves by middleman Alexandre Djouhri to use the press to hush up the Nicolas Sarkozy-Gaddafi funding affair. The court ruled that our investigation was “substantiated by a sufficiently factual basis” and was of “major public interest”.

In the columns of the French edition of Vanity Fair and then those of the Sunday newspaper Journal du Dimanche (JDD) – of which he is now  editorial director as well as of Paris Match - the journalist Hervé Gattegno has constantly contested Mediapart's revelations about the Libyan affair – the claims that Libya funded Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 campaign - and questioned the judge-led investigation which has seen the ex-head of state placed under formal investigation. This media campaign supporting the former president's defence was still continuing last summer (see my response to it here). This was despite the fact that there had been three decisions by the courts, including the highest appeal court the Cour de Cassation, which have affirmed the authenticity of the Libyan document revealed by Mediapart back in 2012, confirming that this document was neither a physical forgery nor false in terms of content (1).

Moreover, based on information from the judicial investigation into the Libyan finance affair, an investigation published on November 14th 2016 by Mediapart's Fabrice Arfi and Karl Laske showed that this obstinacy was not simply a matter of journalistic pluralism and went well beyond any simple difference in assessment between different media and journalists. The article in French, which was headlined 'How Djouhri manipulated the press to stifle the Libyan affair', stated: “On first name terms with the spokesperson of the Lagardère group [editor's note, owners of the JDD], Ramzi Kiroun, and the director of the JDD, Hervé Gattegno, the middleman Alexandre Djouhri has worked hard to orchestrate the media denials and counter-attacks over Nicolas Sarkozy's Libyan financing affair.”

Having sent us two rights of reply (see here and here) which we published in full even though they did not comply with the formal legal requirements, Hervé Gattegno decided on December 14th 2017 to sue us for defamation. These unusual proceedings taken by one journalist against others (Fabrice Arfi and Karl Laske as the article's authors and me as publishing editor) culminated at first instance in a judgement issued on January 22nd 2019 which found Mediapart guilty. Our lawyer Emmanuel Tordjman from the law firm Seattle immediately appealed this verdict on the basis that it did not do justice to our arguments.

It is this judgement that has now been overturned by the court of appeal in Paris, under the presidency of Anne-Marie Sauteraud, sitting alongside court advisors Sophie-Hélène Chateau and Françoise Petureaux. Acquitting Mediapart and dismissing Hervé Gattegno's case, the 18-page judgement dated November 21st 2019 notes that the article at the centre of the case was “substantiated by a sufficiently factual basis, based in particular on full witness statements which reveal very close links between Alaxandre Djouhri and Hervé Gattegno, thus allowing one to ascribe to the latter an involvement in the disinformation efforts that are being criticised.”

The court continues: “In these circumstances and in the context of an article dealing with the role of the press and its links with the legal system in a democratic society, a matter of major public interest, in particular on the issue of an affair involving suspicions of illegal electoral financing, the conviction of journalists, in proceedings taken by another journalist, would constitute a disproportionate infringement of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, as well as of the public's right to be informed, rights guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

The judgement concludes: “Taking account of these circumstances, the admissible limits of freedom of freedom of expression have not been exceeded in the present case and the defendants will be acquitted, the [original] judgement thus having been annulled.”

Before that conclusion the court had been careful to highlight in its own words the defamatory nature of what our investigation had said about Hervé Gattegno: “Letting himself, as well as other press organs, be manipulated by the middleman Alexandre Djouhri, to whom he was very close, with the aim of stifling Nicolas Sarkozy's Libyan funding affair.”

And the court of appeal added this analysis: “Deliberate involvement in this way in an attempt at disinformation to protect a politician is manifestly contrary to the ethical rules of the profession of journalist, as well as against common morality.” It is an analysis which needs no further comment.

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(1) Over the summer Mediapart sent several rights of reply to the Journal du Dimanche whose articles, under the byline of Hervé Gattegno, called into question the rigour, honesty and good faith of our investigation work into the Libyan affair. None of them has been published.

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