Reporters Without Borders is appalled to learn that a court in the central city of Mechelen has ruled against Yves Desmet, the editor of the daily De Morgen, in a libel suit, finding that he expressed “wrong” views about a dispute between two judicial officials in a January 2012 editorial.The editorial was about a dispute between two members of the prosecutor’s office in nearby Antwerp over an investigation into tax fraud on an allegedly gigantic scale in the local diamond sector.
The judge in charge of the investigation, Peter Van Calster, wanted to prosecute diamond dealers suspected of evading nearly 300 million euros in taxes, while his superior, prosecutor-general Yves Liégeois, was reportedly pressing Van Calster to let the tax department and diamond dealers reach an agreement.
In an article published on the newspaper’s opinion page, Desmet accused the prosecutor-general of being more interested in combatting moonlighting than in pursuing white-collar criminals. He concluded: “You could say there seems to have been partiality. Or, if the term were not outmoded, class justice pure and simple.” Claiming that the family’s honour had been besmirched, Liégeois’ wife, who is also an Antwerp judge, brought a lawsuit against Desmet demanding 19,000 euros in damages.
Despite awarding only symbolic damages of one euro in its 15 January ruling, the court found that “the suggestion of apparent partiality and the use of the term ‘class justice’ were based on a personal perception” and that Desmet’s comments were “wrong from the point of view of objective information.”
“This ruling is as absurd as it is outrageous,” Reporters Without Borders said. “An editorial is not an exercise in investigative journalism or a factual report that has to be objective. It is by definition the free expression of an opinion, a series of ideas deriving solely from freedom of expression.
“How can an opinion, which is by definition subjective, be expected to satisfy criteria of objectivity? How are we to interpret the extremely dangerous notion of a ‘wrong opinion’ being voiced by a judge who is supposed to guarantee freedom of expression? Does this mean that some opinions are now unacceptable in Belgium?
“Regardless of the resulting ridicule and despite its essentially symbolic nature, the Mechelen court’s ruling must be combatted firmly for the sake of the right to freely and publicly express views on the ways our institutions function.
“The international impact of such rulings should not be underestimated either. We hope that De Morgen’s appeal to a higher court in Antwerp is handled quickly and that this surreal ruling is overturned.”