Tuesday, October 24, 2006

I'm off to the Palais de Justice

I'm off to the Palais de Justice, and I'm not just sightseeing.

Today is the occasion of the second al Durah/France2 defamation trial, that of defendant Pierre Lurçat :

Lurçat, 39, a Jerusalem resident and president of an association called Liberty, Democracy and Judaism, was sued because he is the leader of an organization listed as the legal operator of a Web site, www.liguededefensejuive.com, that urged readers to attend a planned demonstration against France2 in 2002: "Come demonstrate against the lies of France2," it said, "and the gross manipulation with an award for disinformation to France2 and Charles Enderlin."

Those of you who are used to the free-for-all that is the internet are probably more than a bit perplexed as to what the big deal is here. That this sort of statement could be a cause of action in any court in a country that considers itself to be a modern, developed, progressive nation--not to mention a bastion of liberty--is ludicrous.

Let's put aside for the moment the question of whether the accusations this defendant made against France2 and Enderlin are true, as blogger and historian Richard Landes (and, in the interests of full disclosure, acquaintance and friend of mine) has suggested at his website Second Draft and his blog Augean Stables.

Forget it? Isn't it of the utmost importance? Absolutely of the utmost importance. I happen to believe the evidence is strong that both France2 and Enderlin may have done exactly what Lurçat and the other two defendents have accused them of doing (at the very least the plaintiffs almost certainly lied in their original allegations that the Israelis deliberately killed the boy, and about the amount of footage they had and what it showed; I've written at some length on al Durah/France2 before, here and here.)

I'll be writing more about the many issues involved in these cases (Landes has written a piece on the "justice" involved in the verdict from the first trial, that of Karsenty; he rightly calls it "aristocratic justice"--which, of course, is an oxymoron--and likens it to that initially extended to Dreyfus). But for the moment, I merely stand in awe of the colossal arrogance of France2 and Enderlin, and the contempt they show for freedom of speech and for the right to demonstrate peacably, by the mere act of bringing these lawsuits.

Can you imagine a similar lawsuit brought by CNN, for example, or NPR, in the US? I'm not a fan of the journalistic standards of either organization, but that low they would not go.

Of course, one of the reasons is that US law would not let them; defamation, especially of a public figure, is exceptionally hard to prove under common law rules such as that of NY Times vs. Sullivan, which established the standard that:

The First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials except when statements are made with actual malice (with knowledge that they are false or in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity).

France's justice system has a very different standard, as France2 and Enderlin were well aware before commencing these particular suits. It's also of note--in a sort of poetic, metaphoric way--that in France the trial is being held in a building known as a "palace" (there's that aristocratic echo being sounded again), while Lurçat's association is called "Liberty, Democracy, and Judaism," in what I imagine might be a somewhat ironic commentary on the famous sentiment of the French revolution "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."

What sort of liberty is it that produces a legal system that allows a well-known reporter a cause of action against a private citizen for calling his news report a lie? And what sort of liberty is it that produces a legal system that does away with the presumption of innocence for that defendant? (See pages 13-14 of this document for clarification; it appears to be up to the defendants here to prove Enderlin lied rather than for Enderlin to prove he told the truth and that they acted malaciously, as in the US.)

It's been raining off and on in France ever since I've been here. I've had an excellent trip thus far, absorbing the beauty of the buildings, the people, the fashion, the food (ah, above all the food!) and the general ambience.

But I can't ignore the chill that's in the air here, and I'm not talking about the weather. That a news organization cannot be criticized by a private citizen such as Lurçat (or previous defendent Philippe Karsenty or upcoming defendant Charles Gouz) without such citizens being afraid of being slammed with a lawsuit should rightly send a shiver down the spine of every freedom-loving citizen of the world.

It's no accident, of course, that the law under which Karsenty, Lurçat, and Gouz are being prosecuted is the same one that was used to convict Emile Zola of defamation for his critical role in writing about the Dreyfus affair.

Zola declared:

In making these accusations, I am fully aware that my action comes under Articles 30 and 31 of the law of 29 July 1881 on the press, which makes libel a punishable offense. I deliberately expose myself to that law.

Zola was convicted of libel in 1897; he fled the country but ultimately returned and the charges against him were dismissed. He died a few years later under "mysterious circumstances" and never lived to see Dreyfus exonerated.

But I'll give Zola the final word today. What he said was true then, although the wheels of justice ground slow. I hope his words are as true now as they were then, and that events will move far more quickly toward that desired end:

The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it.

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