French publishers fight court censors

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The Independent Online
SWINGEING penalties imposed by the French courts on two investigative books have provoked an outcry in France against judicial curbs on freedom of information. All the country's publishers are threatening to come together to reissue one of the books - an investigation of business corruption - in defiance of the courts.

The publishers say that the unparalleled fierceness of the court penalties would, if allowed to stand, make any form of challenging non-fiction economically suicidal in France. The controversy arises from legal challenges to two books, an investigation of corruption in business tribunals written by a former police officer and an investigation of the murder of a member of parliament, written by two journalists.

In both cases the courts, in Brest and in Toulon, did not ban the entire book. They ordered the publishers to remove several pages which were found to be libellous. What outraged the book industry was the simultaneous decision of the two courts, 600 miles part, to impose fierce fines on the publishers for every uncut copy found in th e shops. The fines were set at pounds 10,000 a copy in Brest and pounds 1,000 a copy in Toulon - many times the going rate for previous judgments of this kind.

The fines applied instantly - another break with legal precedent - giving the publishers no time to withdraw copies from the shops. In both towns, the court bailiffs were immediately dispatched to tour local book shops and seize offending copies.

The Albin-Michel publishing house, which produced the book called the Mafia of the Business Tribunals by the former policeman Antoine Gaudino, faces fines of pounds 580,000. The bailiffs seized 58 copies of the book, at pounds 10,000 a time. The head of the company, Francis Esmenard, said he would appeal but, if his company lost, "it will place our very existence in peril".

The publishing trade federation, the Syndicat National de l'Edition, described the rulings as "exorbitant, disproportionate and prejudicial to freedom of expression". The federation has protested to the government, which can in theory do nothing since the courts are independent. At a series of crisis meetings in the last two days, the chiefs of the leading French publishing houses have decided to take on the judiciary head on if the appeals are lost later this month.

All French publishers would agree to reissue Mr Gaudino's book in its entirety - challenging the courts to impose even more draconian penalties. The publishers say they accept that there may have been inaccurate or doubtful information in the two books (the other was called Yann Piat, the Secret History of an Assassination). But they argue that the nature and scale of the penalties would make it economically suicidal for French publishers to accept any work in the future which investigated political or commercial wrong-doing.

Claude Durand, president of the Fayard publishing house, which is not directly involved, said: "The result will be to impose self- censorship, which is even more pernicious in the long run than censorship itself."