Hearings on the defamation lawsuit filed by the Luxembourg-based agro company Socfin will take place the 25 and 26 of January in a court in Paris.

A hearing in the lawsuit against Sherpa, the NGO ReAct and three French media companies (Mediapart, L’Obs and Le Point) begins today, 25th of January. The non-profit organisations face a lawsuit for allegedly defaming the Luxembourg-based entity Socfin on account of its coverage of the activities conducted by the company’s subsidiary Socapalm in Cameroon. Both entities belong to the Bolloré Group, one of France’s largest companies, listed in the Paris Stock Exchange.

French NGOs have been denouncing attacks on freedom of expression by Bolloré Group and its director and media tycoon, Vincent Bolloré, since 2009, when the company and its director started a series of strategic litigation procedures against journalists and organisations who reported on the adverse impacts of the transnational corporation’s activities. These entities and journalists have come together in the "On Ne se Taire Pas!" (“We will not shut up!”) collective, an initiative aimed at defending freedom of information against Bolloré’s and other big companies’ backlash, as the the joint article released yesterday stresses.

In 2015, villagers affected by oil palm plantations run by Socapalm in Cameroon mobilised against the company, its parent entity Socfin and the Bolloré Group itself accusing them mainly of land grabbing practices. In April of that year, Sherpa, together with some French media, published an article authored by the NGO “ReAct” which described the problem and echoed the community’s demands.

The company had acknowledged conflicts linked to land issues before the OECD National Contact Point (NCP) after a complaint filed by Sherpa and other NGOs in 2010. Nonetheless, the company denies the accusation of land grabbing and has brought legal action on defamation for the use of this concept.

Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) to silent the voice of communities

According to the NGOs, this lawsuit pertains to a broader strategy called SLAPP (“Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”) which the group has implemented in the last years. The organisations count over 20 legal proceedings initiated by Bolloré or Socfin since 2009. In total, around 50 journalists, lawyers, NGOs and media directors have been sued by Bolloré or its partner entities in these procedures. In 2011, Sherpa was already the object of another suit for defamation that the company dropped afterwards.

In their joint article, the organisations warn that the SLAPP is increasingly being used by large companies as a means to deter journalists and organisations which echo the voices of communities affected by their activities. These legal proceeding attempt to create financial burdens for defendants, to isolate journalists who conduct these researches, and to send a warning call to media companies and civil society organisations which try to shed a light on the misconduct of these companies.

The article mentions other “regular” actions by the Bolloré Group to impede freedom of press. According to the text, the Group’s media agency Havas would have tried to withdraw 7€million in advertising from the journal Le Monde, after it published an investigation about the activities of Vicent Bolloré in Ivory Coast. It also mentions the cancellation of several documentary films in Canal+, channel belonging to the Vivendi Group, whose Executive Director is also Vicent Bolloré.

The “We will not shut up!” collective considers that the general interest it at stake in these proceedings. For this reason, the group aims at mobilising public opinion and at promoting reforms in the French legal system to increase protection of freedom of expression against any kind of censorship.

To read the full Press Release (in French).

For more information, contact:

Clara Gonzales, Communication and Litigation officer at Sherpa: 01 42 21 33 25 / clara.gonzales@asso-sherpa.org