At midnight on Monday, the French news website Mediapart complied with the Versailles court of appeal which last week ordered the site to withdraw articles referring to the Bettencourt recordings--the secret tapings of Liliane Bettencourt, the richest woman in France, by her butler. Mediapart as well as the newsweekly Le Point had been sued for violation of privacy by the Bettencourt family and by the L'Oréal heiress' legal tutor and fund manager, Patrice de Maistre. Le Point withdrew its articles on Friday.
While Mediapart bowed to the judges and deleted 72 articles, it has not lost its teeth. The website says it is determined to exhaust all legal means; it will contest the verdict before the Court of Cassation, France's highest court, and, if necessary, will appeal to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, which has a long and dignified record of defending press freedom and freedom of expression. "Decision after decision." writes Mediapart, "this supreme institution has broadened the right to information with three key words: legality, necessity, and proportionality."
Meanwhile, Mediapart intends to turn judicial condemnation into a political battle for public-interest journalism. On its home page the headline "Affaire Bettencourt" slowly mutates into "Censuré: l'affaire que vous ne pouvez plus lire" (Censored: the story that you can no longer read). And it offers a number of articles that clearly attest that there will be no surrender. "We have no other choice but to wage combat for a just justice," writes Mediapart founder Edwy Plenel. "And if we respect the decision that has been imposed upon us, it is like Socrates drinking the hemlock in order to better denounce the inequity of his death sentence."
Mediapart has been endorsed by leading media and press freedom groups (among them the Committee to Protect Journalists). More than 50,000 citizens have signed its petition for "the right to know."
In a show of solidarity, a number of mainstream French outlets (including Le Nouvel Observateur and L'Express) and foreign media have also decided to post on their own websites the articles that had to be scratched from Mediapart. "The freedom to inform cannot be deleted by the breach of privacy," wrote Philippe Nothomb, legal counsel of Belgian's newspaper Le Soir. "No attack against press freedom can be tolerated."
[Reporting from Brussels]