French court rejects Azerbaijani lawsuit against reporters

Laurent Richard and Elise Lucet

Laurent Richard and Elise Lucet

On 7 November, a French court rejected a lawsuit filed by the Azerbaijani government against two reporters who had described the country's regime as a "dictatorship." Azerbaijan had tried to sue the journalists for libel.

On 7 September 2015, France 2’s weekly program Cash investigation aired a report about a spring 2014 trip to Azerbaijan made by the then French president, Francois Hollande, and a dozen French executives. French journalists Elise Lucet and Laurent Richard covered the event from Azerbaijan only to have their recorded material confiscated by Azerbaijani authorities, in particular interviews they had conducted with opposition figures and human rights advocates. In their program, when it aired, Lucet described the Azerbaijani political regime as "a dictatorship, one of the world's harshest", while Richard described President Ilham Aliyev as a "dictator" and "despot".

The Azerbaijani government immediately filed a lawsuit against the management of France 2 and the reporters. The lawsuit clearly aimed to make a political point rather than profit, demanding only one euro in damages. The reporters' defense lawyers insisted that in France, only an individual and not a government could seek protection from libel. In May 2017, a court in Versailles rejected a similar suit from Azerbaijan – back then, Baku had sued a member of the French parliament who had described Azerbaijan as a "terrorist state" in his blog.

After a preliminary hearing in September 2017, a Paris court finally declared Azerbaijan’s lawsuit inadmissible on 7 November.

On Facebook, defendant Laurent Richard wrote that the court had ruled in effect that "Azerbaijan can be described as a dictatorship, and Azerbaijan cannot export censorship."

The rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) believed that the suit was an attempt to stop those who opposed censorship in Azerbaijan. "We are deeply relieved that Azerbaijan has failed to export its censorship to France", said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. "Any other decision would have opened a dangerous breach that would have allowed despots all over the world to come and persecute French journalists in France."

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