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French website Mediapart faces crippling judgment

Three years ago, revelations by the independent news website Mediapart on the "Bettencourt affair"-- allegations of illegal funding of former President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative UMP party by the heiress of the L'Oréal fortune, Liliane Bettencourt--put the fledgling site on the map, helped it build a reputation as a dogged and fearless muckraker, and boosted its subscriber base.

Now this "affaire" threatens to be catastrophic for survival of the website. Mediapart based part of its findings on 41 hours of conversations recorded by Pascal Bonnefoy, Liliane Bettencourt's butler, who feared that unscrupulous people were trying to benefit from his employer's frailty. Claiming a violation of their privacy, Liliane Bettencourt and her legal tutor, Patrice de Maistre, in 2010 sued Mediapart as well as the center-right newsmagazine Le Point, which had both published extracts of the recordings.  

On July 4, the appeals court of Versailles ruled that Mediapart and Le Point must pay 20,000 euros (US$26,100) in damages and ordered both outlets to withdraw the "stolen recordings" from their respective websites and delete all articles mentioning the tapes. If they failed to comply, the court threatened, the two outlets would have to pay a fine of 10,000 euros per day per article. According to a Mediapart estimate, the ruling might concern 894 articles as well as 2,000 user comments written by the site's readers, leading to a mind-boggling, monumental fine. On Monday July 15, a bailiff sent by de Maistre visited Mediapart to officially order implementation of the sentence. Mediapart has eight days to comply. At this stage, Le Point has not received a similar injunction, but such a measure would also have a devastating effect there.   

The sentence has sent shock waves through the French media landscape. Last week some 40 media organizations, civil rights groups, and unions rallied against the court's decision, claiming that it was an act of judicial censorship. A few news outlets, like the Paris daily Libération or the Brussels paper Le Soir (full disclosure, I am a Le Soir columnist) volunteered to host the recordings. An appeal titled "We have the right to know"  as of today has received the support of more than 24,000 people: politicians (mostly Socialist, Leftist, and Green members of Parliament); celebrities, including filmmakers Costa Gavras and Luc Dardenne, leading academics Benjamin Stora and Jean-François Bayart, and writers Michel Butel and Jean-Claude Carrière;  and thousands of "simples citoyens," common citizens outraged at what they consider a raw act of censorship.   

To most observers the sentence appears highly disproportionate and vindictive. "Mediapart, as well as the weekly newsmagazine Le Point," wrote Pascal Riché in Rue89, "limited themselves to listening to these tapes and excerpting parts of them in order to illustrate their articles. They also refrained from publishing the sounds exposing the private life" of the people involved in the conversations.   

In this battle, the non-conformist Mediapart is in a different category than the mainstream and center-right Le Point. Since its launch in 2007, Mediapart has made many enemies on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Its role in exposing the Bettencourt affair seriously undermined Nicolas Sarkozy's run for the presidency in 2012, but its investigators have not spared the Socialists either. Last year the website revealed the secret banking account of Socialist Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac, who was forced to resign in March at a great cost to the reputation and the electoral chances of the ruling party.

Mediapart's founder and director, Edwy Plenel, is the former editor-in-chief of the paper of record, Le Monde, and a prolific writer of essays on civic and watchdog journalism. He has built his reputation on a succession of muckraking exposés that have regularly rocked the French establishment. "The private life of individuals is a principle as sacred as the public's right to know," he wrote in his recent book, Le Droit de Savoir (the right to know). "But the protection of privacy should not be an alibi to hamper the revelation of crimes against the public interest or persons."

For tracking down, in his own words, the "illegal practices, the complacent arrangements, the conflicts of interest, the unscrupulous business deals, the corruption cases," Plenel has a crowd of admirers who consider him a model independent journalist, a French equivalent to famous U.S. muckrakers Izzy Stone or Ida Tarbell.

Many in the circles of power, however, depict Plenel as a radical and a rabble-rouser who feeds populist resentment. Many of his self-styled victims would view the collapse of Mediapart, and the demise of his irritant director, with utter joy.

 [Reporting from Brussels]

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