October 1, 2021

by Nicolas Tenzer.

This op-ed from Nicolas Tenzer is a translation, slightly adapted and referenced, of an op-ed published on 17 September 2021 in French by the newspaper Le Monde and on Mr Tenzer’s website. EU DisinfoLab would like to thank Mr Tenzer to have given us permission to republish it here.

Is it possible that a foreign state uses the French justice system to silence its critics? This is one of the issues that will be raised before the 17th chamber—specialized in libel and slander cases—of the Paris judicial court on September 30. On that day, I will have to answer for two critical tweets against Russia Today. Other similar proceedings have been launched against public officials, intellectuals and political figures. In largely similar cases, the complaints of this channel have already been dismissed as ineligible.

This is a matter of State in a double sense: the complaint comes from a State and it is indeed the primary institution of the rule of law, justice, which is, in fact, instrumentalized in this large-scale attempt.

I will not develop my arguments here, which I reserve for the justice system of my country, in which I have always had total confidence. In a previous case—that of a complaint issued by a blogger who had certain indulgences for the regimes of Assad and Putin—, in 2019, it had released me and granted damages. Coincidentally, the plaintiff’s lawyer was the same as the one, today, of Russia Today.

The case is of general significance: these complaints are multiplying in France and elsewhere and, if they are not stopped by the law, regardless of the outcome of the current proceedings, they will continue to thrive in the future. In the United Kingdom, investigative journalist Catherine Belton, former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times and author of one of the best and most critically acclaimed books on the Russian regime, Putin’s People, and her publisher HarperCollins, are being sued by four oligarchs and a Russian company. The European Parliament and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights have warned about SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation). Those initiated by foreign States or companies or personalities of these States are certainly specific and even more worrying.

With regard to Russia Today, which twitter now identifies as “Russia state-affiliated media,” President Macron when he received his Russian counterpart in Versailles on May 29, 2017 already described it as “an organ of influence and propaganda.” Along with Sputnik, RT belongs to a government agency of the Russian state and receives all its funding from it. It has branches in several countries, although some have not granted it permission to broadcast, and is expanding its reach into social networks and electronic messaging where its audience seems to be strongest. Its editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, makes no secret of the intentions of this media, nor of her own positions, comparing the role of Russia Today to that of the Ministry of Defense: “We are conducting the information war, and even more, against the Western world. […] The weapon of information is a weapon like any other.” She called for the closure of foreign media on the Internet in Russia. She constantly denied—and at the same time eventually legitimize—the poisoning of the Skripalsand Navalny and congratulated the Belarusian president for the hijacking of the plane that led to the arrest of dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich. She did not deny that the channel’s communication operations were directly organized with the Kremlin.

Unlike the public channels of democratic countries—France 24, RFI and TV5 Monde in France, the BBC in the UK, ARD, ZDF and Deutsche Welle in Germany—criticism of the Kremlin’s positions is not allowed. We are not going to see guests denouncing the aggression against Georgia and Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, Russian war crimes in Syria or the practices of the Wagner group militias, not to mention the large-scale repression of dissidents and free media and organizations still existing in Russia. Russia Today speaks very little about today’s Russia. On democratic channels, political pluralism is not only the rule, but even a legal requirement: many guests regularly criticize government policy. The French, British and German governments, to take just one example, have no power to direct or influence the content of these media.

It is unusual for a media outlet to attack a public figure. Usually, the practice is the opposite: a person sues a media and a journalist when he or she considers that he or she has been defamed by them. One cannot imagine a French media organization suing a person because he or she wrote that his or her reports were biased, politically oriented or simply false. Criticism of the media is part of democracy. It would not occur to the French state or any of its agencies to attack a Russian personality in Russia because it was criticized. In any event, one knows only too well how a Russian court would handle this case…

Beyond the attacks on other personalities that I am not supposed to talk about, why have I been the object of four complaints, two of which were lodged by Russia Today, in close connection with my positions on the actions of the Russian regime? I have been working on this regime for more than fifteen years and I have been constantly alerting people about it. I denounce its crimes inside and outside, especially its war crimes in Syria. I have often qualified it as the first and most immediate threat to Europe and the world. I have dissected the workings of its propaganda. I have explored the nature of the regime and its ideology. Thousands of people, in France as well as abroad, have denounced, sometimes more vehemently than me, Russia Today and highlighted its methods. Not all are attacked in this way. In some countries, this would be legally impossible, or at least more complicated than in France. The will is to intimidate. In my case, in spite of the little pleasure that a lawsuit represents, it is a lost cause and even an encouragement to continue.

Not being allowed to criticize an organ that is one of the instruments of a State’s foreign policy would mean being prevented from denouncing it, which would be contrary to the French Constitution—of which the Declaration of Human and Civic Rights is an integral part—and the European Convention on Human Rights.

By using this method in France and in other democracies, the Russian state is only trying to apply the same intimidating practices it uses at home to silence those who oppose it. We must tell them that this does not work here. These judicial attacks by Putin’s regime are part of a larger pattern: interference in the democratic life of several states at the time of elections, amplified echo given to movements of protest and destabilization of Western societies, financing of extremist parties and groups, “corruption” through the recruitment of personalities for lobbying purposes, even if, for the moment, this intellectual and moral corruption is not legally sanctionable apart from influence peddling, which is often difficult to prove. Our governments are slow to react to this mortal danger.

Behind these procedures, the question is that of freedom of expression and investigation. This work is risky, unfortunately in terms of integrity and life in extreme cases, and, except when it is supported by solid media or organizations, in moral and financial terms for small NGOs, fragile media or personalities of the academic world, or simple citizens. Some, faced with these risks, have backed down, even though it is independent personalities who, in addition to international consortia of journalists, are advancing the work of truth. In several countries, including France, there are almost no legal limitations to these complaints: the indictment is automatic if the material existence of the incriminated fact is established. The judge is not empowered by law to make a selection, which the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights is proposing to change. In France, the 17th Chamber is so overcrowded that proceedings—as is the case here—often take more than two years to be judged. Taking into account the appeals, the proceedings can take more than five years. Often, in the event that the judge finds that a complaint is abusive, the compensation awarded is far from covering the moral and financial damage. They are not sufficiently dissuasive.

It is urgent that France and then the European Union adopt legislation against these muzzling procedures and that the persons attacked be protected, abusive recourse dissuaded and, in the case of States or bodies with a direct link with foreign countries, prohibited. It is time to be serious both in the defense of democracy and in the fight against its enemies.

Nicolas Tenzer