In the fall of 2016 Ricochet was sued by a popular right-wing print, radio and TV personality with Quebec’s largest media corporation. For the past three years we’ve been preparing for a trial that could shape the future of press freedom in Quebec and Canada. Next month, on May 15, 2019, Ricochet and two contributors will go to court over a satirical critique of one of the most powerful media figures in the province.

We are proceeding to trial, with all the attendant risks, because the precedent involved is too important.

When we went public with this lawsuit in 2016, we were met with a groundswell of public support and donations. You told us to fight, that you had our backs, and so here we are.

This case is about commentators who wrap themselves in the flag of free speech to defend the outrageous and hateful things they say, and then sue anyone who dares to criticize them

The last three years have been hard on us. There have been a lot of meetings with lawyers, to say nothing of depositions and other preparations. And if we lose, Ricochet may cease to exist. But this case isn’t about us.

It’s about the ability of rich and powerful men to use their resources to pursue and bankrupt media outlets that criticize them. It’s about the chill that journalists and editors feel when considering whether to publish content that will make enemies out of the deep-pocketed and well-connected. It’s about commentators who wrap themselves in the flag of free speech to defend the outrageous and hateful things they say, and then sue anyone who dares to criticize them.

It’s about the future of press freedom in Canada.

We’re telling you all this now because Ricochet is a crowdfunded media outlet. That means we don’t report to a U.S. hedge fund — we report to you, our readers and supporters.

When we go to court next month, we’ll be fighting for you, for your right to know and for the right of all media outlets to speak truth to power.

The facts

Controversial Quebecor columnist Richard Martineau styles himself a free speech warrior, often defending the right of others to make provocative or offensive statements and routinely testing the limits of mainstream discourse — particularly in his frequent comments on Muslims and their role in Quebec society. He is perhaps best known for appearing on television dressed in a burqa, and just last week his Facebook account was briefly suspended for violating the social media giant’s policies on hate speech. He vigorously denied that his writing about trans people could be considered hateful and denounced the attempt to censor him.

“I stated a scientific truth, and because of that, I am blocked on Facebook. It’s fine to fight hate messages, but who decides what is hateful and what is not?” he responded in French.

Richard Martineau on LCN in 2013

LCN/screen capture

In 2016 Martineau sued author Marc-André Cyr, illustrator Alexandre Fatta and Ricochet over a satirical obituary for his career. Although uncommon in English-language writing, the faux obituary is a popular form of satire in the francophone world — so common that Martineau published a satirical fake obituary of his own back in 2003.

Claiming defamation, Martineau filed a lawsuit demanding $250,000 in damages, and another $100,000 in punitive damages — more money than Ricochet has taken in over five years of operation. Unusually for this kind of case, the lawsuit in the Superior Court of Quebec was not preceded by a letter asking for a retraction or other remedy, and was filed roughly eight months after publication of the article.

Most pundits who weighed in criticized Martineau for what they saw as his free speech hypocrisy

When news of the case broke, it was covered by the majority of media outlets in Quebec as well as many in the rest of Canada. Most pundits who weighed in criticized Martineau for what they saw as his free speech hypocrisy, and raised the alarm about the risk to press freedom in such a case.

In response, our readers swung into action and donated over $50,000 to our legal defence fund in a matter of days. Thanks to you, and to the generous support of our lawyers, we’ve been able to invest the necessary resources into mounting a proper defence. We were deeply moved and humbled by that outpouring of support.

But this whole process has nonetheless taken its toll, not only in the time taken away from our work for the outlet but also in the sword of Damocles that has been hanging over our heads.

Despite it all, we’ve continued to produce high-quality journalism and opinion in English and French, reflecting stories and perspectives too often absent from the mainstream media.

In early May we’ll be in Winnipeg at the Canadian Association of Journalists’ annual awards. We’re a finalist in the online media category for our investigative series documenting the links between a white supremacist web store, the Canadian military and several mainstream conservative parties. Just last month we published another labour-intensive investigation, revealing that political interference by a Liberal MP may have played a role in scuttling an OECD review of a Canadian corporation.

Our podcast network is rapidly growing into one of the largest sources of Canadian commentary from the left, and in 2017 our flagship show Unpacking the News won the National Campus and Community Radio award for Best in Podcasting. And in the past weeks we’ve reported on everything from the exploitation of young workers in Montreal’s restaurant industry to the acceptance of two of the Snowden refugees into Canada.

During last year’s Quebec election campaign, our French edition made headlines with their investigative reporting on the links between the oil lobby and Quebec’s now-governing CAQ party while also going to Paris to pick up an award for best francophone podcast at the international Paris Podcast Festival. Lately they’ve covered Quebec’s debate about a new secularism law from all angles, including a feature interview with a prominent Muslim feminist in the province, and reported on everything from how women are less frequently cited than men in Quebec media to live coverage of the march held to commemorate the Christchurch attack.

This, and much more, is the work we will continue to do if we survive this trial. We practise journalism in the public interest, in both languages, with an editorial position that values people and the planet over corporate profits. Our work is rigorous, often cited by other media outlets and academics, and in many cases covers stories that would not be told if we were not using our meagre resources to shine a light on what some would prefer remained hidden.

The defamation lawsuit against us threatens the principles of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and indeed puts our very survival at risk. If we lose, it may be the end of Ricochet as we know it.

The broader context

Efforts to use the courts to shut down unfavourable media coverage are multiplying of late. An executive with a “free speech” campus club in Ontario is suing a writer for criticizing him online; last year the Supreme Court ordered Vice reporter Ben Makuch to compromise a source; and journalist Justin Brake was forced to fight charges related to his presence at a protest he was covering as a working journalist all the way to the court of appeal.

Quebecor is even suing the independent press council for defamation over a series of decisions that have gone against Martineau and the media empire

In Quebec, the Quebecor-owned Journal de Montréal is suing a satirical website that parodies its style and content; right-wing radio host and former Rebel Media contributor Éric Duhaime recently sent a cease and desist letter to a member of the National Assembly over her published criticisms of him; and in October 2017 Radio-Canada received a cease and desist letter and a complaint was made to the press council over a televised report in which Émilie Nicolas, a columnist for Le Devoir, detailed the racist statements of certain radio stations in the province. Quebecor is even suing the independent press council for defamation over a series of decisions that have gone against Martineau and the media empire.

Freedom of expression is at the heart of debates that will take place over the coming weeks. These legal actions by free speech advocates and columnists, radio hosts and outlets that are major players in the media world, and that invoke freedom of expression to justify their own statements, show that in their eyes, their freedom of expression does not extend to those who criticize or parody them.

As we often hear, being for freedom of expression means being prepared to defend the freedom of those with whom we do not agree. It is clear here that for these champions of freedom of speech, that adage carries little weight. Their actions can certainly be perceived as an attempt at censorship.

How you can help

We’re going to court for those whose voices are in the minority. We’re going to court for freedom of expression and of the press. We’re going to court to stand up to bullying by the rich and powerful, to defend our existence and to make sure that our voices, your voices, are heard.

Even if we win the lawsuit, the truth is that we barely have the resources to begin to cover the stories that need to be told. As media outlets crumble around us, it becomes increasingly clear that the future of media is non-profit outlets like ours that fund their activities through the support of readers, not the advertising-supported corporate outlets that stalk the media landscape like dinosaurs. But the model only works when enough readers support it.

When we go to court next month, we will carry with us your hope, your well wishes and your solidarity.

If you believe that we play an important role in the Canadian media landscape, and that rigorous and professional journalism that shines a light on areas ignored by mainstream coverage is essential, the best way to support us as we face this ordeal is by becoming a member of Ricochet. Five dollars a month is all it takes to help us pay more journalists to cover more stories, and send a message to people like Richard Martineau that even though we don’t have a mega-corporation for an owner, we are not defenceless.

When we go to court next month, we will carry with us your hope, your well wishes and your solidarity. When we asked for your support in 2016 you told us, overwhelmingly, that you wanted us to fight for the principles involved here. And so we have.

On May 15, the real fight begins. We expect to emerge victorious, but come what may we won’t stop fighting for our right to satirize the most powerful members of society, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable — in other words, to practise journalism.

Thank you all for your support. It means the world to us.