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France13 January 2003

Magazine heavily punished for criticising wine

Reporters Without Borders today criticised as "excessive and totally out of proportion" the award of heavy damages against a French magazine that printed sharp criticism of local wine.

A court in Villefranche-sur-Saône, near the French city of Lyon, ordered the monthly Lyon Mag on 10 January to pay 284 143 euros in damages to 56 wine-producing cooperatives in the Beaujolais region which had complained the magazine had "denigrated" their product.

"We ask you to consider the full implications of this decision, which is a serious economic threat to the magazine’s survival," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said in a letter to Pierre Vittaz, president of the Lyon appeals court, asking him to cancel the lower court’s order to pay the damages immediately.

The article, in the July-August 2002 issue of the magazine, was headed "A respected expert says Beaujolais is not proper wine." François Mauss, chairman of the European Grand Jury, an association of professional wine-tasters, had criticised the way the wine was produced.

He told the author of the article, Jean Barbier, that it was "shitty wine." The magazine, which ran three pages about Beaujolais, also contained a less outspoken interview with Maurice Large, president of the Interprofessional Beaujolais Wine Association, headed "The quality of Beaujolais is not in question."

The court said that "by misrepresenting Beaujolais wine in such a disgusting way by comparing it to excrement," Mauss and Barbier had "exceeded the acceptable limits of their respective social roles as (even severe) critic and as journalist by seriously abusing their right to freedom of expression and publication."

The total damages to the wine co-ops was calculated as one euro for every hectolitre of their annual wine production. The court also ordered Lyon Mag to pay for publishing the verdict in five newspapers as well as the costs of bringing the case.

The editor of Lyon Mag, Lionel Favrot, said the magazine had asked for the immediate payment order to be dropped, because it was "exorbitant" in view of the publishers’ annual turnover of 1.9 million e

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