“Distortion of the facts”: French media executives guilty of libel in Chetcuti Cauchi case.

November 23 00:00 2023 by The Editor Print This Article

Chetcuti Cauchi wins high profile Defamation Case.

In 2019, Chetcuti Cauchi had already obtained the raw footage by Court Order, revealing that claims were fabricated by the French media house. In 2023, Chetcuti Cauchi went on to win a landmark defamation case against media group M6 and production company Ligne de Front.  The two media executives challenged the use of own footage as evidence against them and backtracked on allegations. The Court of Criminal Appeal found both media executives guilty of "dishonest and criminally reprehensible conduct" and a "distortion of the facts in bad faith."

Our legal correspondent followed up the proceedings of the Court of Criminal Appeal hearing the criminal defamation case against two media executives accused of criminal defamation when they made allegations of preferential treatment of Chetcuti Cauchi’s citizenship applications, which turned out to be false.

"Journalists' defence that their own footage should not be used as evidence against them not to incriminate them, and, in any case, that their claims did not insinuate any impropriety on the part of Chetcuti other than being well-versed in immigration law in a way to serve his clients better."
Jean-Philippe Chetcuti wins passport defamation case against French TV
French court finds that secretly recorded interviews were edited in bad faith"
Times of Malta

The French Court of Criminal Appeal reviewed the original footage presented by Chetcuti as evidence, and the Court found Nicolas de Tavernost, chairman of the publisher, Groupe M6, and Bernard de La Villardière, CEO of production company Ligne de Frontboth guilty of criminal defamation, given that their voice-over did not correspond to the actual conversation recorded. 

Chetcuti Cauchi magisterial inquiry vs French Media Chiefs

When the allegations of preferential treatment in investor citizenship applications surfaced, Chetcuti Cauchi had won a court decree ordering media group M6 to hand over the original footage and imposing a daily €1,000 fine for obstruction of process. in January 2020, Chetcuti Cauchi had proceeded to file a complaint against both the media publisher and the production company.

Sufficient evidence to indict French Publisher and Producer Companies

As a result, in October 2022, an investigating judge was appointed to conduct a magisterial inquiry into the actions of M6 CEO Nicolas de Tavernost.  After interrogations, Tavernost was indicted on March 24, 2021, and arraigned before the Criminal Court of Paris in 23 June, 2021, accused of criminal defamation.

Journalists' Defence: 'Don't use the footage against us' 

In defence submissions seen by this portal, Tavernost requests the judge expunge from the case the original footage presented by the complainant, Jean-Philippe Chetcuti Cauchi, as evidence of defamation. The journalist’s defence lawyers stated that French criminal law does not allow the complainant to seek a court order forcing the defendants to present evidence that would incriminate them. 

Defamation lawyers who spoke to this portal pointed out that the conventional defence in a criminal defamation case is the defence of the truth, that is to demonstrate that allegations made were indeed true, backed by evidence.  This twist meant an immediate admission by the investigative journalists that their own footage would disprove their allegations and incriminate them.

Journalists' Defence: 'We never insinuated any impropriety' 

In an even more surreal twist, the accusers become the defenders as the publisher Nicolas de Tavernost of Groupe M6 retracted the allegations and denied making any claims of impropriety, claiming:

“The plaintiffs (Chetcuti) are thus presented as highly efficient professionals for their clients, in the absence of being able to appeal rejection decisions, knowing then how to implement other available remedies, of which there is nothing to indicate that they would be illegal.” 
Nicolas de Tavernost, Groupe M6, in his defence statement.

But the court would have nothing of it. In its appeal judgement in respect of Ligne de Front CEO, the Court noted that:

in his conclusions, Bernard DE LA VILLARDIERE indicates that the rushes demonstrate "nothing except that the law firm is indeed opposed to assisting clients with a criminal past", but that, contrary to what he claims, the statement pursued suggests the opposite.”

Court: Both Producer and Publisher guilty of Criminal Defamation.

On appeal, the court allowed the original footage presented by Chetcuti to be used as evidence. The French Court of Criminal Appeal found Nicolas de Tavernost, chairman of the publisher, Groupe M6, and Bernard de La Villardière, CEO of production company Ligne de Frontboth guilty of criminal defamation, given that their voice-over did not correspond to the actual conversation recorded. 

Court: French journalists' actions were "Dishonest and criminally reprehensible."

In sentencing the media executives, the French Court of Criminal Appeal noted unequivocally that the allegations were “lacking in evidence, detrimental to honour and reputation, and amounted to dishonest and criminally reprehensible conduct.” While acknowledging that the topic of the acquisition of Maltese citizenship forms part of a debate of public interest, the court found that “they are not based on a sufficient factual basis, since the rushes submitted to the proceedings, the content and translation of which by the civil parties are not disputed in the defence, show that the statements made by the voice-over in question are not in line with those made by the persons concerned during the interviews with the journalist.” page 12, Judgement of the Court of Criminal Appeal of Paris, 5 October, 2023.

“In view of this distortion, the benefit of good faith cannot be admitted, and the director of the publication has committed a civil fault based on public defamation of individuals, a sentence remaining proportionate to the principle of freedom of expression, the limits of which have been exceeded.” 
page 12, Judgement of the Court of Criminal Appeal of Paris, 5 Oct, 2023.

Court: Complicity of Producer with Publisher

The Court ruled that even De La Villardière, CEO of the production firm Ligne de Front was an accomplice in this criminally reprehensible behaviour and is liable for having “knowingly provided the means to commit the offence. The producer in possession of the rushes whose production has been ordered and the person concerned by him is also the presenter of the report at issue.” (page 12, Judgement of the Court of Criminal Appeal of Paris, 5 October, 2023).

Finally, the Paris Court of Criminal Appeal found both media captains guilty of criminal defamation in respect of Jean-Philippe Chetcuti Cauchi and CC Advisors Ltd. and condemned the media executives to fines and damages.

Prior exonerations

This judgement comes after a series of official statements announcing the untrue nature of the accusations. The 2019 audit by the Regulator of the IIP of the Maltese Citizenship Agency thoroughly examined all applications managed by the firm and found no evidence of wrongdoing or biassed treatment. A few months later, the Investment Migration Council, the professional association, assessed the video provided by its member and determined that the video was ample proof of the baseless nature of the allegations and the ethical conduct of its member.  All professional and regulatory bodies have cleared Dr Chetcuti and hold him in good standing, including the Office of the Regulator of the IIP (November 2019), the IMC (Professional Body) (February 2020), the PCAC (Nov. 2023), and various other professional bodies and regulators, of which Dr Chetcuti is publicly still a member in good standing.

About Dr Jean Philippe Chetcuti

Dr. Jean-Philippe Chetcuti is a prominent but private figure on the Maltese legal scene.  In 2002, he co-founded Chetcuti Cauchi Advocates, a top-tier Maltese law firm advising international business families and entrepreneurs on legal and tax matters on an international level. In recent years, he has made a name for himself in the fields of investment migration and private wealth law and has won a number of accolades, including, more recently, the Chambers & Partners HNW Lawyer ranking for Malta.