Prominent Quebecor columnist and media personality drops defamation suit against independent outlet

On Tuesday, 10 days after winning a national journalism award for online media and one day before the case was set to appear before the Québec Superior Court, Ricochet Media announced the conclusion of a three-year long legal saga.

In 2016, Le Journal de Montréal columnist Richard Martineau sued the independent non-profit and a blogger and cartoonist for defamation over a fake obituary, lambasting the media personality for his Islamophobic and “alarmist” rhetoric.

Martineau, Ricochet, the piece’s author Marc-André Cyr and illustrator Alexandre Fatta settled out of court for no cash and no apology.

I decided to get to an out-of-Court agreement with the opposing party, in order to avoid a long trial that, given the existing polarization climate, would have turned into a circus and duel to finish between the left and the right,” wrote Martineau in a Facebook post in which he shared a press release. “I don’t think we need this kind of public showdown currently, the climate is already way too hysterical as it is there…”

Now that the dust is finally settling, J-Source spoke with Ricochet co-founders, editors and journalists Gabrielle Brassard-Lecours and Ethan Cox about what it’s like to endure a lawsuit as a small outlet, more about the right-leaning figure who threatened to take them down and what this settlement means for freedom of the press in Canada.

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Back to the beginning

Ethan: In February of 2016, a blogger with our French edition wrote a piece which was a mock obituary for Richard Martineau’s career. And this is something that sounds sort of strange in English because it’s not a form of satire that’s particularly common in the English language but in French, it’s actually a very common form. And so common, in fact, that Richard Martineau had written a fake obituary himself back in 2003. Basically it was a satirical piece saying that he had jumped the shark and that he was being so ridiculous and so alarmist that people would stop paying attention to him and that as a result his career would die because nobody would listen to the ravings of this man anymore. And this piece was illustrated with several cartoons that featured dogs urinating on his grave and God in heaven saying he wasn’t getting in. So it was a very sharp satirical critique but I think the important thing to recognize is that it was of a major public figure. Like editorial cartoons that poke fun at politicians, this was something that was absolutely well within the bounds of fair comment, well within the bounds of the type of opinion commentary that a media outlet should publish. And a perfectly reasonable piece for us to publish.

Gabrielle: It was the first time that the mainstream media was interested in the stuff that we were doing, so it was kind of free publicity at the time. But we didn’t make a big fuss out of it – we were just a little amused. But I think what triggered Martineau was that six months after we published the piece, our professional federation of journalists in Québec organized a panel on freedom of speech and its limits and they invited our blogger (Marc-André Cyr)  to talk about it because of this piece and they also invited Martineau. And he said no but he also said that he thought it was unacceptable to organize a panel inviting the blogger who had written the obituary. Martineau and Patrick Lagacé, who was to host the panel, used to work together and Martineau didn’t like that his old colleague wasn’t defending him.

We received the lawsuit almost eight months after it (the obit) was published. Martineau had never contacted us to ask us to withdraw the article or to apologize or anything. We didn’t hear from him (or his employers) before we received the lawsuit in the Superior Court. We had no idea how to handle this. We didn’t have a lawyer in our back pocket to deal with that. We realized really fast that this was a really serious threat.

Who is Richard Martineau?

Ethan: In Québec, he’s a universally known name and an extremely polarizing one. People tend to either love or hate him but everyone knows who he is. He’s a columnist with Le Journal de Montréal and the Quebecor empire, he has a radio show, he’s a frequent commentator on TV and he is one of the most prominent right-wing voices in Québec. And the other thing that’s important to know about Richard Martineau is that one of the reasons why he’s so controversial is he’s incredibly, I think “obsessed” is the right word, with Muslims. Over 10 years, he wrote, I think it was over 500 columns talking about Muslims, talking about the threat of Muslim terrorism, talking about the “problem” of Muslim women wearing hijabs or burqas or what have you in a secular society. So he is someone who is very much reviled by people who are on the more progressive end of the spectrum, people who are frustrated by the targeting of Muslims that we see often in the media in Québec. He’s a lightning rod for a lot of that anger.

He is somebody that holds himself out to be a free speech advocate. After the Charlie Hebdo attack happened in France, he actually published a series of, I think, 63 columns that were each titled “I am Charlie Hebdo 1,” “I am Charlie Hebdo 2 …” So he built a lot of his reputation on being for free speech and so he was criticized very heavily when this lawsuit came out for what a lot of people, including people on the right, saw as hypocrisy, to say that all speech should be free and protected, except when it upsets him, and then he’s going to go to court and sue. There was really no one in the opinion sphere who was defending him with the exception of one other columnist at JDM. We were able to raise about $50,000 in just a few days to support our defence from the public. It was a very bad week for Martineau there. He got a lot of criticism but he didn’t relent with the lawsuit. So it’s been proceeding towards trial every since.

Chill

Gabrielle: For us it was clear that it was a SLAPP (or strategic lawsuit against public participation) suit. For me, it was clear that Martineau wanted to censor us because if we lose, we disappear. It’s a big victory for independent journalism and in the years we’ve existed, we’ve proven we have a place in the mediasphere of Québec and Canada and we’ve been doing great work. And the best proof we have of that is all the support that we have from people.

It was always a Damocles sword against our head. Because we didn’t know if we would survive the trial and he was asking for $350,000 which of course, we knew we didn’t have. If we go to trial and lost, we would just go bankrupt and basically put the key in the door. We were blocked from institutional financing because we were a risky business. It had real damages. Much more for us than for him.

Two months ago, the legal team reactivated our file knowing that it was coming and from the moment we reactivated that we got to know Martineau really really didn’t want to go to trial. But we did. We were cranked up. We’d been waiting for that for three years. It was a good time to fight this battle which was much larger than just Ricochet. It was political. It was a freedom of speech issue, an independent media issue.

Ethan: It is and always has been our contention that this fell squarely within the bounds of fair comment, that effectively Martineau’s whole argument was to take something that was clearly satire and to pretend that it was serious, and to say, “oh look at these guys, they’re calling for my death.” Which is just ridiculous and it was ridiculous to everyone in French-speaking Quebec when this came out, which is why he was so widely condemned for doing this.

…It is absolutely our right to publish criticism, including pointed and sharp criticism of public figures who take stances on issues of the day with which we disagree.

It’s entirely a criticism of his ideas, his public statements, his columns and of course, it is absolutely our right to publish criticism, including pointed and sharp criticism of public figures who take stances on issues of the day with which we disagree. That’s the role of a media outlet. It’s what most media outlets do when it comes to publishing opinion content. And so it was always our contention that this lawsuit was an abuse of process and would not be upheld in court for very simple and basic reasons, that we absolutely have the right to publish this. I think our supposition has been from the beginning that Richard Martineau’s plan was never to go to trial – that he filed this lawsuit in the hopes of either bankrupting us under legal fees or bullying us into accepting a settlement on his terms. When he was not able to do either of those things and it came to the day before the court date, he decided that rather than have to actually make his argument – this ridiculous argument – in court, it would be less embarrassing for him to withdraw the case. I think anyone that looks at this can see very plainly on its face that he didn’t have a case against us. I don’t think it’s much of a grey area. Satire that targets major figures in the media and political world is absolutely protected within the bounds of fair comment.

David v. Goliath

Gabrielle: Martineau works for JDM which is a property of Quebecor, which owns 40 per cent of all media in Québec, so it’s a big big force in media. For us it was kind of David against Goliath, because we’re a nonprofit and a really small organization. We’re independent, We have no ads. And Martineau, even as an individual, he earns a lot of money. He writes a column six times a week in the JDM, he’s on TV five times a week, he has another TV show. He has a radio show every day of the week for two hours. He has a lot of forums. And he represents the empire, that we call here in Québec, which is Quebecor.

It doesn’t matter the size of the media that you are. You have the right to freedom of speech.

We still consider we won. He withdrew himself. He has nothing that he wanted initially, no money, no apology. But if we would have gone to trial, it would have been a statement if we would have won. I think Martineau realized that he had a good chance of losing and that it was ridiculous to ask us for that much money. So that’s what we wanted to defend, and also freedom of speech. Freedom of speech and “radical Muslims” are the two fights of his life. And he’s a big defender of the freedom of speech and what our point was, if it is, it has to work both ways. You can’t defend freedom of speech for yourself but then when we’re criticizing you, suddenly freedom of speech doesn’t apply.

But I think probably he realized, and in the press release it’s written too, he agrees that we have the right to criticize him and to have the freedom of speech even if we’re smaller, even if we’re independent. It doesn’t matter the size of the media that you are. You have the right to freedom of speech. Especially to criticize very big personalities like him. Every day of his life he criticizes the most vulnerable people of our society, which are precisely the people that we give a voice to at Ricochet. So we felt, I think, a little entitled to fight for those people too.

Ethan: I think that what is important to recognize is that it is part of a broader trend. And I think there are things that are happening that are worrying from the perspective of journalists and media outlets when it comes to using the courts. Obviously we’re all familiar with the Peter Thiel vs Gawker case, but we’ve also seen in recent years Justin Brake having a lot of legal issues out of doing his job. We’ve seen questionable legal protection for sources in the Ben Makuch case. There’s another case in Ontario where Michael Bueckert, a writer and grad student, is being sued by the president of the free speech club at one of the universities there for criticizing him. So I think we see this really interesting thing where some of the same people who professed to be all about free speech when it comes to protecting the rights of racists and bigots to say what they want, those same people become extremely litigious when criticism is turned on them. And so I think it’s important that we are vigilant to the risk that is presented by this type of case. We were lucky – we had lawyers that were working for us for free. We had a lot of money that was donated to support the costs that we had to pay around the lawsuit, but even with those advantages, it was a grueling process that distracted a lot of our attention from the work that we should have been doing for the outlet. And so these types of lawsuits are a concern and I think we in the media community need to be aware of that.

What’s next

Gabrielle: We can go on without the threat of maybe disappearing in the next few months, which we’ve been thinking about for three years. It was difficult to plan in the long term and for big projects.

We still managed to do it. On the French side, we did our first podcast, a series on the Indigenous communities of Québec and we won an award for best Francophone podcast and the English side just won an award for their investigation of the far right. I think we’ve been managing this really well. But it’s a big relief. We can finally go on and concentrate on the content, especially on the French side. At least for the past month, I’ve been really busy with the trial so we can finally do what were best at, doing journalism and developing longer investigative projects. It’s a big relief to be able to focus on the long-term vision.

People are really realizing that we have the right to be there. It gives a sign to columnists like Martineau to think before doing these lawsuits, even with more power, more forums, the money, the legal (strength) behind Quebecor. But I think our editorials and our call to actions were strong enough. We sensed that we also have the press on our side. Even as a journalist, if you don’t agree with what we publish, the lawsuit was so ridiculous in comparison to what we published, it was pretty easy to pick a side. Moving forward, we’ll be more assured of doing investigations and naming names, which to me is the basis of journalism – to be able to call out injustices and people who do wrong things. Hopefully we’ll do that more.