Senegalese Court Imprisons Publisher for Libel
A Senegalese court sentenced a newspaper publisher to three years in prison for including “false reports” in an article claiming the president and his son had stolen government funds.
El Malick Seck was sentenced on September 12 after being found guilty of “acts likely to disturb the public order and cause serious political disorder, of diffusion of false reports, of public insult and of concealment of administrative documents,” according to a September 13 Associated Press (AP) story. Prosecutors had asked for a 5-year sentence.
The paper was also suspended from publishing for three months, according to Seck’s lawyer, Demba Cire Bathily, in the September 13 AP story.
The court acquitted Seck on an additional charge of insulting the president, according to a September 12 story from Panapress, an African news service.
According to Panapress, Seck was arrested August 28 after his Dakar-based daily paper, 24 Heures Chrono, printed an article charging that Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade and his son were involved in laundering money stolen from an Ivory Coast bank.
The judge said Seck did not provide sufficient proof to back up his allegations, according to the AP. Seck maintained in the trial that the information came from reports that were publicly available.
Sambou Biagui, editor of 24 Heures Chrono, said in a September 12 BBC News story that Seck had been sentenced “simply because our paper put in the open the wrongdoings of those who are running this country.”
“This is a political sentence, El Malick Seck is a political detainee,” Biagui said in a September 13 story in the Kenyan Nation.
The September 13 AP story said that journalists have held demonstrations in recent months charging the government with trying to intimidate reporters and squash negative coverage. The September 12 BBC story reported that last month, the offices of 24 Heures Chrono and another paper were ransacked, and some have implicated the government in the incidents.
According to an English translation of the Senegalese constitution by the University of Pretoria, Article 8 includes “freedom of expression” and “freedom of the press” in a list of “individual fundamental freedoms.” Article 11 states that “The creation of a press body for information on politics, the economy, culture, sports, recreation or science shall be free and shall not be subject to prior authorization of any kind. Press regulations shall be set by the law.”
In an open letter to President Wade, members of the PEN American Center, a human rights organization that opposes censorship and defends writers, wrote that they were “seriously concerned that the criminal conviction of El Malick Seck [was a] violation of his right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by the Senegalese constitution, as well as by the African Union’s African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Senegal is a signatory.”
A press release from Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF or Reporters Without Borders) stated that “This sentence reflects all the unfairness and absurdity of Senegal’s law on press offenses,” and that “the alleged libel is in no way redressed by imposing a very severe sentence and now the government has a political prisoner on its hands.”
The report also called on President Wade to “quickly embark on a thorough overhaul of Senegal’s press legislation.”
Seck was also arrested in 2007 on charges of “offending the head of state and publishing misinformation,” but was later released, according to a Nov. 8, 2007 Reuters story.
Italian Court Rejects Prime Minister’s Suit against The Economist
A judge in Milan, Italy has rejected defamation claims by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi against British publication The Economist, and required him to pay the magazine’s legal costs.
Berlusconi, currently serving his third term as Italy’s prime minister, filed the lawsuit in July 2001 during his second period in office. His suit claimed that The Economist defamed him in an article entitled “An Italian Story” in the April 26, 2001 issue. The cover of the magazine included the headline “Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy.”
In the 2001 story, which did not name an author, The Economist suggested that Berlusconi was involved in bribery of judges, political corruption, questionable business practices, and connections to the Mafia.
“Mr. Berlusconi has needed a lot of help from insalubrious quarters,” the article said. “Though he says he wants to replace the old corrupt system, his own business empire is largely a product of it. His election as prime minister would similarly perpetuate, not change, Italy’s bad old ways.”
Berlusconi’s suit claimed that article contained “a series of old accusations” which were an “insult to truth and intelligence,” according to a September 5 story in the UK-based Press Gazette.
Berlusconi was also ordered to pay the magazine’s legal costs of 25,000 euros ($35,760), according to a September 5 story in the Dubai-based Gulf News.
Berlusconi’s attorney said he would lodge an immediate appeal in a September 7 Reuters story.
“The Milan court is, in fact, mistaken in ruling lawful an article which in reality should have been considered offensive to ... Berlusconi and was peppered with unfounded assertions,” Fabio Lepri said in a statement, according to Reuters. “It is not by chance that the words of The Economist periodical, published shortly before the 2001 elections, have been disproved many times by the votes of the Italian people.”
The Economist issued a statement on September 6 that said “We are pleased to announce that the Court in Milan has issued a judgment rejecting all Mr. Berlusconi’s claims and requiring him to make a payment for costs to The Economist … [T]he Economist will not be making any further comment.”
“They [The Economist’s arguments] fully fall within the right to criticize, which is guaranteed by Article 21 of the [Italian] constitution,” Judge Angelo Ricciardi wrote, according to the September 5 Gulf News story.
According to The New York Times on September 5, the ruling is unlikely to diminish the prime minister’s frequent criticism of the news media and Italian judges, who he claims have unfairly singled him out for attack since he entered politics nearly 20 years ago.
The Times story reported that The Economist has “repeatedly launched broadsides against Mr. Berlusconi, whose business empire spans television, publishing, film and the soccer team A.C. Milan.”
According to The Times, the Berlusconi feud has been ongoing. The magazine published a cover story in 2006 headlined “Basta, Berlusconi” (“Enough, Berlusconi”), and in July 2008 The Economist accused Berlusconi of using his office to pursue his “personal and corporate interests,” in an article that bore the headline “Berlusconi fiddles, Italy burns.”
American Wine Critic Faces Libel Charge in France
A Paris investigating judge filed preliminary charges against American wine critic Robert M. Parker on September 5 for allegedly defaming his former assistant, judicial officials said in a September 10 AP story.
The AP reported that the judge is looking into a lawsuit brought by Parker’s former assistant Hanna Agostini. Agostini co-authored a French book criticizing Parker. The book’s translated title is Robert Parker: Anatomy of a Myth.
Agostini, who brought the case last year, faces preliminary charges of her own in Bordeaux involving alleged forgery in a wine-trafficking affair centering on Belgian wine trader Geens, the AP reported. Agostini denies the allegations.
According to wine Web site Decanter.com, Parker had said on his bulletin board that Agostini was facing a jail term of five years and a possible fine of 1 million euros ($1.5 million) for fraud and misrepresentation, and that the charges against her were “overwhelming.”
The civil case against Parker, heard in March, found that Parker’s Web site post had violated Agostini’s ‘presumption of innocence’ and awarded her 2,000 euros ($2,820) in damages, which Parker appealed. The September 5 charges marked the beginning of the formal criminal defamation claims, according to Decanter.com.
Parker’s lawyer said the critic declined comment about the case, the September 10 AP story reported.
Agostini’s lawyer, Fabrice de la Voye, said that the U.S. critic made no legal challenge to his client’s book but had “launched a diatribe on his website about her personally,” according to the September 11 Decanter.com story.
“Ms Agostini spent many years working with Mr Parker,” de la Voye said, according to the Web site. “He completely abandoned her when she faced difficulties, and he has now attacked her character and integrity.”
According to a September 10 post on wine blog The Quaffer, Parker, a former lawyer who has his nose insured for a million dollars and is known as the “Emperor of Wine,” fired Agostini in 2003 amid allegations of false accounting. In 2007, Agostini released her critical biography of Parker in which she accused the wine guru of several indiscretions, including discrepancies in his ratings, recycled wine reviews, and cozying up to Bordeaux producers. The post is available online at http://quaffwine.blogspot.com/2008/09/wine-critic-robert-parker-faces.html.
According to the September 10 AP story, Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide is a well-known reference book, and his recommendations can make or break winemakers. His bimonthly publication, The Wine Advocate, assigns scores of up to 100 points to the wines it samples. He has been called the most powerful critic in the world.
– Jacob Parsley
Silha Research Assistant