While in a public press release the lost case was presented as a victory, in its General Assembly the organization acknowledged things went differently.
by Massimo Introvigne — On November 27, 2020, FECRIS, the European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Cults and Sects, an umbrella organization for anti-cult movements in Europe and beyond, significantly funded by the French government, lost a landmark case at the District Court of Hamburg, in Germany, where it was found guilty of 18 counts of untrue factual allegations against the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
On May 24, 2021, Bitter Winter published a commentary of the decision.
On May 30, 2021, i.e., six days after Bitter Winter’s article (and six months after the decision, proving that it was indeed answering Bitter Winter, and without our article it would never have commented the judgement in public), FECRIS published a press release about the case.
In the press release, FECRIS falsely claimed that it had won a case that it had in fact lost. Since the Jehovah’s Witnesses had claimed that 32 FECRIS statements were defamatory, and the court found 17 of them defamatory, one partially defamatory, and 14 non-defamatory, FECRIS claimed that it had successfully defended its case in Hamburg. Obviously, it had not, as evidenced by the fact that FECRIS was sentenced to pay some money to the Jehovah’s Witnesses rather than vice versa.
FECRIS claimed that the 14 statements declared non-defamatory were “essential” and the 18 points for which they were sentenced were “ancillary.” This was totally arbitrary. As evidenced in our article, the statements found defamatory by the court concerned some of the main claims of FECRIS’ usual campaigns against the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Lawyers know that defamation cases are difficult. Not all false statements constitute defamation. Some statements may be inaccurate, yet the courts may regard them as protected by free speech and falling outside the scope of statutes against defamation.
Organizations and tabloids that resort to systematic defamation know that they will be often sued, about several statements, and that they will be sentenced for some and found not guilty for others. Their strategy is normally to downplay the negative decisions and claim victory when only some of the statements for which they were sued, but not all, are found defamatory (a common occurrence even in the most successful defamation cases). They would also falsely claim that, when their statements have been found as non-defamatory, the courts have “certified” that they are “true”—while in fact a statement may be both inaccurate and outside the scope of defamation.
Typically, FECRIS’ press release gave the false impression that the Court of Hamburg had validated the 14 statements it had considered non-defamatory as true. In fact, the Court itself had warned against such an interpretation, noting that in German law “expressions of opinion enjoy extensive protection.
Accordingly, inaccurate opinions also share in the scope of protection.” One clear example of an “inaccurate opinion” regarded as non-defamatory, which FECRIS mentions in its statement as if it had been confirmed as true by the Hamburg judges, is that “all claims of persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are just primitive propaganda.” We even wonder whether FECRIS really believes this statement to be true, after the persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia has been repeatedly denounced by the United Nations, the European Union, and several Western governments, including the German one.
We have now evidence that, while publicly claiming “victory” in the Hamburg case, FECRIS is well aware that things went otherwise. On November 28, 2020, FECRIS’ General Assembly was held by videoconference. One of the items discussed was the Hamburg case. The Assembly was informed of the “enormous work, happily helped by Jean-Pierre Jougla.” According to his Linkedin profile, Jougla is a “honorary attorney” (avocat honoraire), a peculiar French (and Belgian) position indicating somebody, normally retired, who maintains the title of attorney and some of its functions, but can no longer act as an attorney in court cases, except in special circumstances.
Item 2.1 of the report of FECRIS General Assembly of 11/27/2000.
Jougla commented that “this case should be a lesson for us. Contributors should be able to prove what they assert.” The Assembly concluded that for reasons of “precaution and security” “in the future the written texts [of the speeches given at FECRIS conferences] will no longer be published on the web site of the Federation.”
Here, we have several damning admissions.
Rather than a “victory,” the Hamburg case was a bitter “lesson” for FECRIS. The comment that its contributors “should be able to prove what they assert” implies that they didn’t in some of the texts found objectionable by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Court of Hamburg. And the texts of the speeches given at its conferences “will no longer be published on the web site of the Federation,” because FECRIS knows they will make it liable for defamation—although, if a speech is defamatory, it should be excluded from the conferences of a respectable organization in the first place, rather than being first delivered and then “hidden” by omitting its publication.
With this document, the case is closed. FECRIS admits the Hamburg case was a “lesson” for it that came from the fact that it published comments on the Jehovah’s Witnesses devoid of proof.
At the same Assembly, Italian member Luigi Corvaglia presented its intervention at the last OSCE meeting, where he admitted that FECRIS had been denounced by the USCIRF, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, as a purveyor of the “anti-cult ideology” dangerous for religious liberty and of hate speech.
Curiously, Corvaglia claimed that USCIRF “is not an institution of the government of the United States.” USCIRF’s web site, which is hosted by the U.S. government and has a .gov address, states that USCIRF is “a federal government commission.” USCIRF was established by a federal law, which specified that it was “created by Congress to independently assess and to accurately and unflinchingly describe threats to religious freedom around the world,” and that in questions of religious liberty the Secretary of State of the United States “should” work with USCIRF.
Of course, FECRIS is free to disagree from USCIRF, but telling OSCE that “it is not an institution of the government of the United States” does not seem a wise way to counter its findings.
In fact, how the Hamburg case was handled confirms that USCIRF was right, and FECRIS is indeed one of these major “threats to religious freedom around the world” USCIRF was created to identify and denounce.
Source: Bitter Winter