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French journalist Elise Lucet from France 2 channel was one of two journalists accused of defamation by the authorities in Baku. (file photo)

A French court has rejected 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 the South Caucasus nation's authorities to export censorship beyond the country's borders.

Broadcast journalists Elise Lucet and Laurent Richard were accused in the lawsuit 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.

The case was the first time that a foreign government had brought a defamation suit against journalists before a French court.

"The press law has been put in place to prevent political censorship," the president of the court in the Paris suburb of Nanterre said in the November 7 ruling.

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.

Journalist Laurent Richard (file photo)
Journalist Laurent Richard (file photo)

"This decision was a very strong signal to the Azerbaijani government that they could not carry out their censorship outside the country," Richard told RFE/RL after the decision was announced.

Johann Bihr, the head of Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, welcomed the court decision rejecting the lawsuit, which the journalism watchdog has called "an act of intimidation highlighting the Azerbaijani government's contempt for free speech."

"We are deeply relieved that Azerbaijan has failed to export its censorship to France," Bihr was quoted as saying in the statement. "Any other decision would have opened a dangerous breach that would have allowed despots all over the world to come and persecute French journalists in France."

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."

President Ilham Aliyev -- who has ruled the oil-producing 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.

Nineteen-year-old Ukrainian citizen Pavlo Hryb in a Russian court last month.

A Russian court has denied a house arrest request from a Ukrainian teenager held in custody on terrorism-related charges.

The Krasnodar Regional Court on November 7 upheld a lower court's decision to keep Pavlo Hryb in pretrial detention until January 4.

Hryb, 19, went missing in late August after he traveled to Belarus to meet a woman he met online in what his relatives believe was a trap set by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB).

The FSB subsequently informed Kyiv that Hryb was held in a detention center in Russia on suspicion of abetting terrorism, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Hryb's father, Ihor Hryb, has said his son was openly critical of Russian interference in Ukraine on social media.

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry's spokeswoman Maryana Betsa protested Hryb's continued detention in a message on Twitter.

"There is no law in Russia... A human life does not mean anything [there]. We demand that Russia releases illegally detained Ukrainian P. Hryb," Betsa wrote.

Kyiv and Moscow have been locked in a standoff over Russia's illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in March 2014 and its backing of separatists in a war that has killed more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.

With reporting by censor.net.ua

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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