The case opens a day after a media investigation revealed that Azerbaijan has allegedly been using a a 2.8-billion-dollar slush fund to buy political influence in Europe and boost the country’s international image.
The lawsuit against the two television journalists has been slammed by the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) as “an act of intimidation highlighting the Azerbaijani government’s contempt for free speech.”
“Not content with eradicating all pluralism at home, the regime is now targeting its critics abroad,” RSF said in a statement.
Investigative journalist and television host Elise Lucet and journalist and film-maker Laurent Richard are accused of defaming the Azerbaijani government by referring to it as a “dictatorship” when the former Soviet republic received a visit from then French president Francois Hollande two years ago.
This is the first time a foreign government has brought a defamation suit against journalists before a French court, according to RSF.
The case is due to begin on Tuesday in a court in the Paris suburb of Nanterre.
The journalists were at the time working on a programme for France 2 television called “Cash Investigation” about the background to Hollande’s trip.
Richard was arrested and later released in Azerbaijan at the end of his reporting trip to cover Hollande’s visit to the oil-rich country of 10 million people in in the South Caucasus region.
Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index. Its government has “systematically eliminated what remained of media independence.”
“We must not let Baku export its censorship to France,” said RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said.
by Rory Mulholland