A French court began hearing a lawsuit by Azerbaijan’s government against two French journalists it accuses of defamation, in a case described by the defendants and media freedom activists as an attempt by Azerbaijani authorities to export censorship beyond the country’s borders.
The defendants in the lawsuit before a court in the Paris suburb of Nanterre are broadcast journalists Elise Lucet and Laurent Richard on September 5.
They are accused of defaming the Azerbaijani government by referring to it as a "dictatorship" two years ago, when then-French President Francois Hollande was visiting the Caspian Sea country.
It appears to be the first time that a foreign government has brought a defamation suit against journalists before a French court.
In an interview with RFE/RL ahead of the court session, Richard said "we do think that it is a dictatorship and not a land of tolerance as they are pretending."
“I am not sure that's a very good idea from them to sue some reporters because we are going to talk about the real, very critical things that are happening in Azerbaijan," he added.
Richard also expressed concern about what he called the Azerbaijani government’s strategy "to export the kind of censorship abroad, on French soil."
Introducing an investigation program about the background to Hollande's trip on the France 2 television channel in September 2015, Lucet described Azerbaijan as "one of the world's harshest dictatorships."
In an interview with France Info radio, Richard referred to Azerbaijan as a "dictatorship."
Richard and his cameraman were briefly detained in Baku at the end of their reporting trip in May 2014 and their equipment was seized.
Johann Bihr, head of Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, testified in defense of the two French journalists on September 5, along with Azerbaijani journalist Aqil Xalil and human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus.
Xalil, a reporter for the opposition Azadliq newspaper, fled to France in 2008 after a series of attacks on him.
Leyla and Arif Yunus left for the Netherlands in 2016 after being convicted of economic crimes and imprisoned for 18 months following a trial that the couple and international human rights groups denounced as a travesty of justice.
RSF says it regards the lawsuit as "an act of intimidation highlighting the Azerbaijani government's contempt for free speech."
"Not content with eradicating all pluralism at home, the regime is now targeting its critics abroad," the Paris-based media watchdog said in a September 4 statement.
"By suing two French journalists who just used their right to free speech, the Azerbaijani government is demonstrating its complete inability to tolerate criticism," RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said. "We must not let Baku export its censorship to France."
RSF says it appears this is the first time that a foreign government has brought a defamation suit against journalists before a French court.
Azerbaijan is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index. For the past three years, the watchdog says, the country's authorities have "systematically eliminated what remained of media independence."
The Turan news agency, Azerbaijan's last independent media outlet, in August became the latest victim of the government's crackdown on the media.
The authorities ordered its director, Mehman Aliyev, to be sent to nearly three months of detention pending trial on tax-evasion and abuse-of-powers charges. Its bank accounts have been frozen, forcing it to suspend all activities.
On August 26, the U.S. State Department urged Aliyev's immediate release and said the actions of the Azerbaijani government "to curtail freedom of press and to further restrict freedom of expression are the latest in a negative trend that includes the government's May decision to block access to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other independent media websites."
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev -- who has ruled the oil-producing South Caucasus country of nearly 10 million people since shortly before the death of his father, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003 -- is on RSF's list of press-freedom predators.
RSF says that at least 16 journalists, bloggers, and media workers are "currently imprisoned in connection with the provision of news and information -- usually on trumped-up charges."
Dozens of journalists have fled the country in recent years to escape the crackdown, according to the watchdog.
With reporting by AP