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France13 August 2003

Appeal court orders monthly to pay exorbitant damages for report criticising Beaujolais

Reporters Without Borders has condemned today’s decision by the Lyons appeal court to sentence the monthly Lyon Mag to pay 100,000 euros in damages to Beaujolais wine producers as an "attack on press freedom."

The amount of the damages set by the court was "out of all proportion to the harm suffered," secretary-general Robert Ménard said in a letter to justice minister Dominique Perben.

The damages are to be paid to 56 wine-producing syndicates which filed suit claiming an article in the magazine’s issue no. 116 of July-August 2002 "denigrated" their product. The appeal court also ordered Lyon Mag to pay 20,000 euros in publication costs and 3,000 euros in court courts. The magazine said it will appeal to the court of cassation and, if necessary, to the European Court of Human Rights.

The damages set by the appeal court were, however, less than the 284,143 euros set by a lower court in Villefranche-sur-Saône (Rhône) in January. This sum could have ruined the magazine, which has a turnover of 1.9 million euros. It was calculated on the basis of one euro for every hectolitre of Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages produced annually by the syndicates.

Headlined "A great expert says Beaujolais isn’t wine," the article contained comments by François Mauss, president of the European Grand Jury (an association of professional wine-tasters), who was interviewed by Lyon Mag reporter Jean Barbier. In the three-page feature article, Mauss said Beaujolais "isn’t wine" and that it was "a crappy wine."

The monthly also ran a more moderate interview with Maurice Large, president of the Beaujolais Wines Inter-Professional Union, headlined "Beaujolais’s quality is not in doubt."

The court said in its ruling that "by misrepresenting the wine known as Beaujolais in this fashion, by resorting to scatological language and likening it to excrement, François Mauss and the journalist who interviewed him went beyond what is acceptable in the exercise of their respective social functions of criticism - even severe criticism - and information, and gravely abused their recognised freedom of expression and publication."

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