Huawei is trying to use French libel laws to punish a Western researcher. Will it work?
Many of China’s influence efforts have focused on companies that have invested in the Chinese economy or that are pursuing its massive market. But a new lawsuit against a French researcher and a television show that hosted her reveals how Beijing is extending its efforts to critics in the media and research institutions.
In September, Chinese telecom manufacturer Huawei filed a defamation suit in a French court against Valerie Niquet, a researcher with the Foundation for Strategic Research, or FRS, a think tank focusing on defense issues. Her offense? Appearing on France’s "C dans l'air” in February, she noted that Ren Zhengfei, Huawei’s founder, was once a member of the People’s Liberation Army, and said, as many have before, that Huawei is essentially an arm of the Chinese government.
The criticism comes as Europe is wrestling with how to regulate the telecom giant. While France hasn’t banned Huawei gea outright, it has looked at restricting on how its equipment can operate in the country and what sort of customer data, such as location, the company should be able to access.
The lawsuit, which also names the show’s producer Maximal Productions, was brought to light on Nov. 11 by French news outlet La Lettra A.
“These legal steps mark a turning point in Huawei France's strategy of influence,” La Lettra A declared.
It’s the first time the company has sued a researcher for defamation for stating common opinions and recognized facts. The timing of the suit comes months after the supposedly offending incidents — and a few weeks after the arrival of Lu Shaye, China’s new ambassador to France.
French libel laws give a plaintiff wide latitude to sue, said Raees Mohamed, whose Arizona-based RM Warner Law has extensive experience with defamation suits in the country.
“The jurisdictional limits are broad, because so long as the statements are published in France, the defendant can be sued in France,” Mohamed said.
Niquet and Maximal Productions will have to show the court that their aims were legitimate, not driven by malice, presented in a way that was “prudent and measured,” and that the comments were supported by a serious investigation to arrive at the truth, he said.
“It is quite possible, given the international nature of the story, that a French court would rule that the statements were not defamatory, and that if it was ruled defamatory, the public-interest would be harmed, violating Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights,” he said.
FRS officials issued a statement in support of Niquet. They say it’s an issue of liberal values and national security. “FRS supports the free individual expression of its researchers as part of their professional activities. More generally, they reiterated a fundamental principle: freedom of expression in public debate on the most contemporary issues of strategic interest.