An important victory for investigative journalism has just been won in Quebec, but most journalists probably overlooked it.
That's too bad, because it demonstrates that good journalism can sometimes be found in unlikely places and that "public interest" and "responsible journalism" are increasingly being recognized by the courts in Canada.
Quebec Superior Court Justice Catherine Mandeville sided with the Montreal publisher of The Epoch Times, a small newspaper serving the Chinese community, which was sued for defamation by the publisher of a rival paper, La Presse Chinoise.
A series of Epoch Times stories examined the publisher, Crescent Chau, and how he managed to publish 100,000 copies of four special editions of his newspaper and distribute them free of charge in Chinese communities across Canada. La Presse Chinoise usually circulates a mere 4,000 copies, sells them for 60 cents each, and limits distribution to Montreal and a few copies to Ottawa.
The special editions carried no advertising or news, just articles denouncing and calling for the elimination of Falun Gong, a spiritual group that has been violently suppressed in China since being outlawed in 1999. The articles repeated the Chinese regime's most malicious, unsubstantiated charges against Falun Gong practitioners -- that they engage in bestiality, vampirism, murder and suicide.
Chau sued The Epoch Times for libel, asking for nearly a quarter million dollars in damages.
The Epoch Times, founded in 2000 by practitioners of Falun Gong, examined Chau and his business and wrote a series of investigative articles that suggested he was acting on behalf of Beijing. The articles appear to be thoroughly and professionally reported, which isn't always the case in the often under-resourced ethnocultural press. Epoch Times reporters interviewed a former Chinese diplomat who offered insight into Beijing's influence over overseas media, and reviewed Chau's own public statements and testimony made before the European Parliament and U.S. House of Representatives.
Justice Mandeville ruled that the paper acted in the public interest and its articles expressed "legitimate concerns and constitute an opinion which is drawn from a factual premise and not made for the purpose of abusively attacking the reputation of Mr. Chau." She said it's "a case of the biter complaining about being bitten."
Although Chau denied being an agent of Beijing, the court found his explanations for how he funded his special editions were "to say the least, nebulous." Under Quebec law, Chau bore the burden of convincing the court that The Epoch Times failed to exercise a standard of care, and he clearly did not do that.
This case is a significant victory for a publisher that has come under some suspicion because of its ties to the Falun Gong ideology. In 2006, the paper's credibility was damaged when one of its journalists hurled insults at Chinese President Hu Jintao at a White House briefing. President George W. Bush apologized to the Chinese for the incident. In turn, The Epoch Times apologized to the U.S. president, although it denied any direct ties to, or funding from, Falun Gong.
But in the Quebec case, the paper's reporting stood up to the court's scrutiny, and we should all be grateful for their careful scrutiny. Beijing has used similar lawsuits to silence critics, but they weren't allowed to get away with it this time.