The Nîmes appeal court has awarded libel damages and costs of more than 91,000 euros jointly against the satirical weekly l’Agglo-Rieuse, journalist Jean-Marc Aubert and publisher Tristan Cuche.
The suit was brought against the weekly for an article headlined: “Swindle alleged, but what happened to all the cash?” published in May 2010, in which Aubert wrote about legal actions against the businessman Robert Garzillo and referred to criticism of the Strada Group and its subsidiaries, of which Garzillo is the CEO. The penalty imposed by the court appeared to be abnormally high for a libel case against a publication of extremely limited resources. The action, alleging damage to the honour and reputation of Garzillo, first came to court in December 2011 and arose from the May 2010 article, which stated: “Hidden in Garzillo’s past are spectacular business failures and legal problems that occurred long before the latest investigations.” The two journalists were originally ordered to pay Garzillo 1,000 euros each. The paper itself was sued for libel by the companies IPF, TPF, Strada Architecture and the Strada Group. The Montpellier criminal court threw out the applications by the four companies. In the Nîmes appeal court, however, things did not go the weekly’s way. The court president, Marie-Christine Greiss, awarded damages and costs of 8,000 to Garzillo as a first step. The court overruled the previous judges and found that the journalist had not carried out a proper investigation, therefore damaging the reputations of the four companies. Garzillo had warned him that he was mixing up the CEO with the companies he ran, yet he did not take this into account. In the court’s view, there was “a clear intention to cause damage” and as a result “the plaintiffs had suffered harm”. L’Agglo-Rieuse, its journalist and publisher were ordered to pay a total of 50,000 euros to the Strada Group, which received the most attention in the article, and 10,000 euros to each of its subsidiaries. They must also pay 800 euros each towards the plaintiffs’ costs, bringing the total to 91,200 euros. “The Nîmes appeal court appears to have lost all sense of proportion,” said Reporters Without Borders programme director Lucie Morillon. “Even if the story is disputable, the amount of the penalty goes far beyond what is reasonable: 91,200 euros, which amounts to 50 percent of the turnover of l’Agglo-Rieuse. We are witnessing the death of a newspaper by financial strangulation.” Besides the exorbitant nature of the damages awarded, RWB notes that the European Court of Human Rights differentiates between a private individual and a corporate entity: “There is a difference between the commercial reputational interests of a company and the reputation of an individual concerning his or her social status. Whereas the latter might have repercussions on one’s dignity, for the Court interests of commercial reputation are devoid of that moral dimension” (Judgment in Uj v. Hungary, paragraph 22). Since the case was brought by commercial companies, freedom of expression should be interpreted more broadly. Although damages sometimes amount to tens of thousands of euros, it is highly unusual to see high sums in libel cases in France.