It’s been a strange week. On Monday we announced that Ricochet is being sued, along with two of our contributors, for defamation. The lawsuit, filed by tabloid columnist Richard Martineau, asks for $350,000 in damages over a satirical mock obituary published by our French edition.
In June of this year the Quebec Press Council dismissed a complaint over the article at the crux of Martineau’s lawsuit, finding “no apparent ethical fault.”
Illustrated with several provocative cartoons, it was an irreverent assault on the ideas and rhetorical style of a controversial public figure.
As Lucie Piqueur wrote in Montreal outlet Urbania, “Ricochet did not wish for the death of Martineau, they lamented the death of his credibility.”
The lawsuit dominated the front page of almost every Quebec news outlet on Monday, but went largely unnoticed by legacy media in the rest of Canada. That’s too bad, because this case could set a devastating precedent for freedom of the press and freedom of expression across Canada.
In Quebec, no one is neutral on Martineau
Part of the challenge is that Richard Martineau, a household name in Quebec who hosts TV and radio shows in addition to writing a regular column in the Journal de Montréal, is unknown in the rest of Canada.
In Quebec, he’s a litmus test. His heated rhetoric on Muslims, feminists, students and other groups has earned him fierce critics and loyal fans. No one is neutral on Martineau.
Some argue that the rhetoric of the man who once wore a burqa on his TV show to make a point about veiled Muslim daycare workers, compared the wearing of the veil to Nazis forcing Jews to wear stars, and likened striking students to murderous cannibals and psychopaths, has sunk to the level of “discriminatory words and expressions of prejudice.” Indeed, the Quebec Press Council has twice censured him for exactly that.
His defenders argue that he is a brave man who speaks from the heart, without regard for the limitations of political correctness. He tells it like it is, consequences be damned.
Over the years he has often fallen back on the defence of free speech when his work is questioned, and he has risen to the defence of others whose free speech was threatened, once arguing on principle that an avowed racist should be allowed to enter the country and speak freely.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, Martineau authored a series of dozens of columns praising the satirical work of the magazine’s cartoonists. He defended even the most extreme of Charlie’s cartoons in the name of free speech and freedom of the press.
Back in 2003 he authored a “notice nécrologique” of his own to target the newspaper he now works for, using the satirical device of a faux obituary to mock the tabloid for its failings.
In March of this year, he wrote, “Freedom of expression is ALSO the freedom to say what is shocking, detestable and unpopular.”
And yet here we are. Martineau has gone from declaring “Je suis Charlie” to using one of the largest law firms in Canada to sue a small independent media outlet for doing far less than he has done and defended throughout his career.
A devastating precedent, or a major victory for press freedom
Let us be the first to say, Ricochet is not perfect. We have much work left to do before we can become the outlet we dream of building. But we are the only independent outlet in Canada to publish distinct editions in English and French, with an independent reporting fund managed by Indigenous editors. Our French edition is one of the only proudly progressive platforms in Quebec to publish serious journalism, opinion pieces that provoke and, yes, criticisms with teeth — all on an annual budget assuredly smaller than Martineau’s salary.
Whether the piece satirizing Martineau was clever or in good taste isn’t the question. It’s not for everyone, including some of us at Ricochet. But does it warrant a defamation lawsuit?
The precedent set by such a judgement would have a chilling effect on criticism of public figures in Quebec, and would undermine freedom of the press and speech across Canada.
The likeliest outcome of a lawsuit like this against a small non-profit is that the organization goes bankrupt under the legal costs associated with mounting a defence.
From the beginning, Ricochet has been an experiment in crowdfunded journalism, and to this day, our largest source of funding is donors who give $5, $10 or $25 a month.
So when this lawsuit arrived, we knew our only chance was to reach out to our community and ask for help. The response has been, to borrow from Bernie Sanders, “yuuuuuuuuge.”
In just a few days, we have raised over $35,000 of the $50,000 we need to defend ourselves. It came from over 1,500 individuals, with an average donation of $23.
You can help us get there by donating at the bottom of this page, or better yet become one of the many members who sustain us with monthly donations, but even just sharing our story is enough to make a real difference to this case.
Ricochet exists because of the donations and shares of readers like you, and our only power in this world flows through you.
Today we are fighting not only for our existence but also for the right to a free press, for the right of small independent outlets to coexist with corporate media giants like Quebecor, owner of the Journal de Montréal. We are fighting for the right to turn the tables on the powerful, to satirize a public figure who has so often ridiculed and disparaged others.
So we aren’t going anywhere. We’ll defend ourselves robustly in court, we’ll keep doing our work with whatever’s left of our budget, and we’ll carry on publishing the original journalism, interviews, opinion pieces, podcasts, video reports and columns you’ve come to expect from us.
We may be small, but together we are mighty.
All quotes in this editorial have been translated from the original French.