On 25 - 26 January 2018 the criminal chamber of the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris opened a defamation trial concerning a complaint brought by Luxemburg-based palm and rubber company Socfin against two French NGOs that work with Fern, ReAct and Sherpa, and three news groups (Mediapart, L’Obs and Le Point).
Thirty-nine per cent owned by French group Bolloré, Socfin is involved in a number of social conflicts in Cameroon (as in other countries), to which various critical campaigns and reports have drawn attention. For example, Socfin is pursuing ReAct for having published a press statement accusing the company of land-grabbing. Notably, the Belgian Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) national contact point issued a communication in June 2017, referring to “constant problems on such plantations” and the absence of “measurable results”, and inviting the company to respect OECD guidelines. With support from Fern, the community organisation Synaparcam also testified at the Paris hearings on behalf of 1,100 community members living near the Socfin plantations.
In solidarity with the accused organisations, a day before the trial, more than 60 NGOs (including Greenpeace France and Reporters Sans Frontières), media groups (including Le Monde, TF1 and Europe 1) and individual journalists signed a collective op-ed titled “we will not be silenced!” It denounces Bolloré’s “muzzling prosecutions” as direct attacks against freedom of speech and against the public interest, and ends with a list of similar legal proceedings: since 2009, Bolloré and its affiliates have brought more than 20 legal prosecutions against 50 journalists, lawyers, photographers and NGOs for negative reports about the impacts of their business activities in Africa.
Tristan Waleckx, a TV journalist who co-signed the op-ed, has been targeted by another lawsuit after investigating working conditions in a Bolloré-owned palm oil plantation in Cameroon. He contends that these costly procedures are attempts to intimidate, isolate and exhaust the human and financial resources of media and NGOs. Waleckx points out that Bolloré typically loses if the cases proceed to judgment or withdraws its complaint before. In Cameroon, local community members have also found themselves targeted by such prosecutions.
Fern expresses its support to ReAct, Sherpa and the others pursued in this case, and to the International Alliance of Villagers and Synaparcam in Cameroon fighting to ensure respect for human rights on the ground.