There was good news on freedom of speech front yesterday, as the Wall Street Journal won a complete victory in a libel case involving terror finance issues. The lead reporter, the venerable Glenn Simpson, is now 4-0 since 9/11 in these types of cases.
While the victory is a testament to his tenacity and care, it is also a testament to the courage of the WSJ in willing to fight and win these cases. Most are lost simply because the will to fight has gone out of so much of the media, who would often rather settle than protect the truth.
A brief summary: The Tribunel Correctionel in Paris issued a ruling in Ancienne Bauche SA v The Wall Street Journal Europe. The Journal, editor Michael Williams and reporters Glenn Simpson and Benoit Faucon, were all acquitted on charges of felony and civil libel.
The other WSJ cases are: One UK case was lost at trial but overturned by the House of Lords (the ground-breaking and precedent-setting case of Mohammed Jameel); one UK case was thrown out (Yousef Jameel); one UK case was dropped by the plaintiff (Al-Rajhi), and the Bauche case was won at trial.
The cases seem to indicate that careful, fair and accurate reporting on terrorism financing can withstand legal challenge even in Europe, where plaintiffs are heavily advantaged in libel proceedings. The catch: You have to be willing and financially able to defend yourself. To all our benefit, the WSJ had the will.
Bauche, a Paris sugar-trading concern which did business with a trader in Gaza accused by the Israelis of backing terrorism, alleged libel over a July 2007 report regarding the use of commodities to transfer value from an Islamic charity in France to Islamic charities in the territories.
Bauche arranged shipments of sugar to Gaza financed by a charity in Paris called the Comite de Bienfaisance et Secours aux Palestiniens, which is legal in France but is banned by the U.S. for allegedly financing terror. The group won a previous libel case against the Simon Weisenthal Center (currently on appeal).
At a trial at the Palais de Justice in Paris on April 1st, the two reporters testified for about five hours regarding their work on the story, which took six months. Key to the defense was that the article made clear there was no reason to believe that Bauche had knowingly or intentionally supported terrorism.
At the end of the April 1st trial, the public prosecutor made some non-binding observations. She called the article “a serious in-depth investigation,” which lacked invective or innuendo and contained “just stated facts.” The journalist testimony regarding efforts to confirm the story in various places “shows they are serious and their rigour. They have multiple sources. Their sources are checked.” So, she said, “I don’t see how to say there is no good faith.”
In their ruling today, the judges found that the story contained only one possible inaccuracy, which involved whether one of the sugar deals was blocked by the French police (as WSJ stated) or simply canceled by the Gaza trader after intervention by the Israeli police (as Bauche alleged). The potential inaccuracy “is not of the kind that would make the article defamatory as it matters little in what circumstances the transaction failed between one version and the other,” the judges found.
“No impropriety, either intentionally or by negligence, is therefore alleged by [WSJ] against the plaintiff, except to consider, which the tribunal would not admit, that every commercial transaction with Palestinian partners is a priori suspicious.”
In other words, the only thing the WSJ reported was that Bauche had done business with Palestinians, and there’s no crime imputed in that.
Concluded the judges: “The facts reported as to the Bauche company are not damaging to its honor and reputation. The offense of public defamation against an individual is therefore not constituted. The defendants are, as a consequence, freed from prosecution.”
As all serious journalists should be.