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.
"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.