FRANCE: SLAPP lawsuits threaten critical voices

(CIVICUS Monitor)

On 25th January 2018, private companies Socfin and Socapalm, which are affiliated with the Bolloré Group, sued three newspapers (MediapartL’Obs and Le Point) and two NGOs (Sherpa and ReAct) for defamation. The legal action was taken after the newspapers and NGOs reported on villagers and farmers in Cameroon who accused the companies of exploiting their land. The Bolloré Group, which is listed on the Paris Stock Exchange and is one of the largest 500 companies in the world, recognised the tensions over land ownership in the Cameroonian communities in 2010; however, the two firms justified the lawsuit because of the potential negative connotation and interpretation of the phrase “land grabbing” that was used by the news agencies and NGOs in their reporting of the issue.

The newspapers and NGOs believe that the lawsuit aims to silence critical voices. Similar lawsuits are being taken against media and NGOs in many parts of the world, and have become commonly known as SLAPPs – Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. According to the NGO Grain, since 2009 Bolloré or Socfin have initiated at least 20 legal actions against media, NGOs and journalists with the intention of preventing critical reporting of the companies’ actions.

Commenting on this case, French-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders wrote

“Systematic lawsuits of this kind aim to pressure, financially weaken, and isolate any journalist, whistleblower or NGO that tries to shed light on questionable activities by big corporations such as Bolloré. The goal is to silence them and deter investigative reporting to protect “business confidentiality,” especially when the business activity concerned could have bad consequences for some.They constitute direct attacks on the public interest and freedom of expression, and they target local communities, journalists, grassroots groups, lawyers and whistleblowers – all the links in the chain for defending rights“.

 In response to these latest legal proceedings, several grassroots groups, NGOs and media outlets started the “On ne se taira pas” (We will not be silenced) campaign. The campaign aims to protest against SLAPPs; create greater awareness of the issue; and promote reforms of the French legal system that would enhance protection of the right to freedom of expression.

Peaceful Assembly

On 24th February 2018, a Paris court ruled in favour of the protest group Attac France, which was sued by the tech firm Apple in another attempted SLAPP. Attac had organised a sit-in at an Apple store in Paris on 2nd December 2017 and several demonstrations in Aix-en-Provence against “massive tax evasion” by Apple. In response to the allegations and protests, Apple had attempted to ban Attac activists from entering its stores. Apple accused Attac of creating “imminent damage” to its stores, products and clients. The court disagreed with these claims, but stressed that protests should be peaceful and allow for the free access of customers to the stores. Attac believes the lawsuit was an attempt to limit people’s right to protest. In regards to the court’s ruling, Attac spokesperson Raphael Pradeau stated that:

“The court has recognised the legitimacy of our actions and went as far as to say we behaved in the general interest“.

Attac (Association for Taxation of Financial Transactions and Citizen Action) is a not-for-profit organisation advocating for social and environmental justice. It regularly organises campaigns and activities to hold financial and multinational corporations accountable for their actions. Demonstrators in the Apple stores called on the company to fulfill its tax obligations and improve transparency in its accounting as part of a wider campaign – #Iphonerevolt – to demand more socially and environmentally-friendly technology. Attac plans to continue its demonstrations against the firm and footage of a previous protest can be seen below.

Apple has previously been accused of tax evasion. In 2016, the European Commission (EC) found that Apple had evaded 13 billion EUR in taxes thanks to a loophole in the Irish tax system. The EC considered this arrangement with the Irish government “illegal state aid”. In winter 2017, the Paradise Papers revealed that Apple created a new tax structure by reportedly moving about 250 billion USD to the Island of Jersey.

Article originally published on CIVICUS Monitor

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