Reporters Without Borders condemns a Brussels court’s decision ordering the Flemish-language monthly MO Magazine to pay Belgian industrialist Georges Forrest 1 euro in symbolic damages because of a cover cartoon showing him in the kind of leopard-skin hat worn by the late Zairean dictator Mobuto Sese-Seko and an accompanying headline saying “Georges Forrest: Congo’s king of copper.”
The cover appeared on the March 2006 issue, which had a story by investigative reporter John Vandaele about the Democratic Republic of Congo (as Zaire is now called) entitled “Congo wastes the family jewels.” It analysed the country’s economic difficulties and the impact of several major contracts it signed with Forrest and other industrialists prior to the 2006 elections.
Forrest sued Vandaele and MO Magazine for 100,000 euros, reducing the amount of damages a few weeks later to 50,000 euros.
In a decision handed down on 25 April, the court rejected the lawsuit against Vandaele, ruling that he respected journalistic ethics. But it ordered Wereldmediahuis, the company that publishes MO Magazine, to pay 1 euro in damages because of the cartoon on the grounds that it was “pointlessly damaging, insulting and defamatory.”
“By convicting MO Magazine because of a cartoon, the court has set a disturbing precedent that Forrest or others could use in the future to sue anyone because of criticism they considered insulting or defamatory,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“By definition, a cartoon is provocative and exaggerated, but it is a form of journalism that must with protected with the same determination and vigilance as any other form of expression,” the press freedom organisation added.