Socfin & Socapalm lawsuit (re defamation by NGOs & media outlets, France)

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On 29 May 2016, the Luxembourg holding company Socfin, of which Vincent Bolloré and Hubert FabriCredit_ReAct are the principal shareholders, and its Cameroonian subsidiary Socapalm sued three French media outlets (Mediapart, L’Obs, Le Point) and two non-governmental organizations (Sherpa and ReAct) for defamation. The allegation stemmed from a press statement published in April 2015 on Sherpa’s website about alleged land grab by the two companies in Cameroon. The press statement, originally authored by ReAct, documented the protests by residents and farmers living near palm oil and rubber plantations run by the two companies. Socfin and its subsidiary denied all allegations of land grab and alleged serious reputational and material damage. The companies sought payment of symbolic damages of 1 Euro from Mr William Bourdon, the founder and publishing director of Sherpa’s website. They also asked for the decision to be published in five newspapers, as well as on Le Point website, one of the defendants.

The 17th Chamber of the High Court of Paris, specialised in press defamation cases, heard the complaint on 25-26 January 2018 and released its decision on 29 March 2018. While it discharged the defendants, the Court agreed with the public prosecutor that the disputed content was defamatory. The press statement constituted a threat to the reputation of the two companies insofar as the alleged conduct would have been a breach of the rights of local residents. However, both the Court and the public prosecutor agreed to apply the good faith exception, i.e., a defamatory claim can still be justified if it pursues a legitimate interest and is unaccompanied by personal animosity. On this point, the Court noted that the disputed statements needed to be assessed in light of the activist vocation of Sherpa. Nothing in the publication suggested that the real objectives of the publication were other than public information from an activist perspective. The content of the article also relied on sufficient factual evidence to satisfy the good faith requirement. 

On 13 February 2019, Socfin and Socapalm withdrew their appeal to the decision and the case is now closed.

 

News items:

Bolloré SLAPP suits: Socfin and Socapalm withdrew their appeal in the defamation proceedings against Sherpa, ReAct and Mediapart, Press release by Sherpa, 14 February 2019

[FR] Spécialiste de l'attaque, Vincent Bolloré désormais sur la défensive, Le Point, 25 April 2018

[FR] Poursuites-bâillons: Sherpa, ReAct, Mediapart, Le Point et L’Obs relaxés, Mediapart, 30 March 2018

[FR] Relaxe requise au procès de plusieurs médias et ONG, poursuivis par la Socfin, Zonebourse, 26 January 2018

Sherpa and other French civil society organisations face libel claim for exposing alleged land grabbing by Bolloré Group, Sherpa, 25 January 2018

Op-ed - We won’t be silenced by Bolloré gag suits!, Sherpa, 24 January 2018

Legal documents:

[FR] Socfin et Socapalm c Bourdon, 2018 Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 17ème chambre correctionnelle, décision du 29 mars 2018