Altice uses business secrecy to stifle the press
“The Reflets.info site, with which I work, is releasing tomorrow a first part of the investigation on Altice and Patrick Drahi” , launches the journalist Jacques Duplessy, on September 4 in front of the cameras of BFMTV. On set, the discomfort is total. For good reason, the continuous news channel belongs to the Altice group, led by billionaire Patrick Drahi. Thing promised, thing due, Reflets.info publishes, between September 5 and October 4, a series of eight articles which relate to the management of the companies of the group, on its methods of tax optimization or on the pharaonic expenses and requirements of the Drahi family. The media announces that it will continue its investigation for » months « . These revelations, from tens of thousands of documents hacked and made public by the group of cybercriminals Hive, provoke the anger of Patrick Drahi. The billionaire then tried to obtain the censorship of four of these articles, invoked business secrecy and summoned the newspaper for interim measures before the Commercial Court of Nanterre, for a hearing which was finally held on September 27. The result of the deliberation is expected on Thursday.
Business secrecy to circumvent press law
A new kind of gag procedure in France because, usually, it is the 17th chamber of the Paris Correctional Court, specializing in press law, which deals with this type of case. Here, it is a consular judge, a trade professional elected by his peers and exercising on a voluntary basis who must render his verdict. “This is my first referral”, loose the magistrate at the opening of the hearing, according to the journalists present on the spot. A grotesque scene that questions the legitimacy of an institution designed to settle commercial disputes to judge the merits of journalistic work. “They are not accusing us of defamation or spreading false information. They invoke business secrecy to be able to circumvent the right of the press”, assures Antoine Champagne, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Reflets.info. A sleight of hand made possible by a European directive, criticized and transposed into French law in July 2018. It stipulates, among other things, that « Obtaining a trade secret is unlawful when it is carried out without the consent of its legitimate holder », in particular through unauthorized access to documents or files. This law also intends to sanction the person who, when disseminating information, “knew, or ought to have known under the circumstances, that this secret had been obtained […] unlawfully”.
A danger to the press
Fortunately, the law on the protection of business secrecy also provides for a few exceptions which, in principle, protect the freedom of the press. Thus, business secrecy cannot be invoked if the information disclosed has been » in order to protect the general interest”. An axis around which the editorial staff of Reflets.info has articulated its defense. An eminently legitimate defence, since after all, the very essence of journalism is to serve the general interest. If the information site were to be sentenced at the end of this unprecedented procedure, this would open the way to other attempts at censorship of the same kind and would jeopardize the exercise of the journalistic investigation. Because, if the journalists had never been able to consult documents resulting from leaks or hacks, they would never have been able to reveal the multitude of scandals linked to the Uber Files, the Macron Leaks, the Pandora Papers or the Luxembourg Leaks. If the Commercial Court of Nanterre decided to sanction Reflets.info, “ it could go even further,” laments Antoine Champagne. He specifies : “How could we establish, systematically and with certainty, that our sources did not acquire the information they transmitted to us fraudulently? ».
Gag proceedings weakening the media
Without mentioning the staggering cost of such legal proceedings for the targeted media, which are already sometimes enough to dissuade journalists from working on certain sensitive subjects. . “For our part, we have launched a subscription with our subscribers to pay our legal costs” , says Antoine Champagne. With three cases in progress, and despite the support of its readers, Reflets.info may not survive a new wave of proceedings, according to its editor-in-chief. The site is far from alone in this case. Pending the outcome of the deliberations of the Commercial Court of Nanterre, scheduled for Thursday, the French press has its eyes riveted on the case and on the worrying precedent that could result from it. All this, to the chagrin of Patrick Drahi, who hoped to camouflage the leak of his data and silence the journalists who relayed them.
— reflections.info (@_reflets_) October 1, 2022