Innovative journalism has been Edward Girardet’s watchword since the beginning of his career. Not that he ever promoted himself as a reporter producing original work that few others could emulate. Hardly anyone else could have made a living out of telling New York taxi-drivers on radio about the seemingly arcane activities of the United Nations in Geneva, as Ed was doing when I first got to know him some 40 years ago.
Over the years he has become even more adventurous in his search for a different kind of journalism: reporting from the war zones of Afghanistan with the anti-Soviet tribespeople, travelling through Africa to cover development activities at ground level, and sneaking with a camera crew into unwelcoming territory in Papua New Guinea to report on a multinational exploiting local people and the mineral resources.
Engagement does not mean acquiescence
None of this obviously dangerous work, including two encounters with Osama Bin Laden, stopped him from publicly denouncing corruption and abuse of power within his chosen field of journalism: from the condemnation of an Afghan military commander for his witnessed abuses to documenting African dictators’ shady deals. Nor has he ever refrained from reporting about the tragic destruction of cultural heritage, whether in the Indian Subcontinent, Middle East, Africa or Balkans.
At the same time, Ed’s brand of investigative journalism always involved a personal commitment to individual experiences rather than simply professional technique, and this has been the characteristic of Global Geneva. From the start the magazine and website have sought to do more than be a standard publication. In most places, writers are given assignments, usually on subjects where they have little previous knowledge or a purely professional interest.
By contrast, most of the articles in Global Geneva have a personal springboard and try to bring something original to the topic because of this commitment and concern.
Ed’s approach to reporting — comparable to that of the great French filmmaker and chronicler of the Shoah Claude Lanzmann — has justified itself in more than grand reporter terms. It has led to the conviction, in the Netherlands, of at least one war criminal from Afghanistan. More recently, he was contacted by German and Swiss war crimes police, because of his reporting, asking for assistance in tracking down other criminals against humanity. His reporting has also led to the release of prisoners of conscience and has helped keep several others from being incarcerated by repressive governments.
So when Ed wrote an article for the U.K.’s Sunday Times about how the ostensibly well-meaning laws for ‘intensification’ (densification) of development in French town centres were leading to the destruction of the local and national cultural heritage – largely from the tearing down of historic buildings – he drew on his personal experience coupled with his own long-time admiration for France itself.
In the tiny town of Cessy, close to the border with Geneva, where he co-owns a house dating from 1680, he found evidence of a much wider problem: the almost unrestricted power of France’s 35,000+ mayors to control the process and brush off local opposition in the name of progress.
‘A precursor and result of corruption’
Even more alarming, in the library of the European Parliament Briefing for 5 February, 2013 he found harsh condemnation of conflicts of interest among holders of public office in the European Union’s member states, including France. This made him think that the property development not only in Cessy and the Lake Geneva region but other fast-developing parts of France, such as the Cote d’Azur, was deeply questionable.
The Parliamentary experts declared: “Conflict of interest (COI) is considered an indicator, a precursor and a result of corruption.” This is in fact a quotation from the United Nations crime chief in the Asian Development Bank and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report on a 2007 seminar on making anti-corruption standards operational and managing conflicts of interest (page 5).
Even the appearance of conflict of interest is dangerous
The Council of Europe definition is even clearer on the dangers: “Conflict of Interest arises from a situation in which the public official has a private interest which is such to influence, or appears to influence, the impartial and objective performance of his or her official duties” (page 6, my italics).
As the United Nations points out and the OECD (which is headquartered in Paris) insists: “The appearance or perception of a conflict of interest can be as damaging as a documented case of COI, since both foment public mistrust in public sector institutions, which can also lead to corruption.” The OECD’s definition says public officials need only have private interests “which could improperly influence the performance of their official duties and responsibilities”. (my italics again)
The Parliamentary briefing paper further notes that Transparency International sees a conflict of interest when public officials are confronted with “choosing between the duties and demands of their position and their own private interests”. TI also ranks France in its 2017 Corruption Perception Index as Western Europe’s fourth most corrupt country after Italy, Spain and Portugal. As TI further notes, this year’s Index highlights that the majority of countries are making little or no progress in ending corruption, while further analysis shows journalists and activists in corrupt countries risking their lives every day in an effort to speak out.”
The 2003 United Nations Convention against Corruption, a legally-binding instrument and ratified by France in 2005, mentions trading in influence (Article 18), illicit enrichment (Article 20) and obstruction of justice (Article 25) as possible results of conflict of interest (page 8).
It emerged that Cessy’s own historic centre (‘bourg‘) was under threat. Not only were four 18th and 19th century buildings to be razed in Ed’s street, but the proposed replacement was a modernist 57-apartment block with two-story underground parking. This was not the only group of traditional buildings in danger in the village. On the other side of the bourg, another clutch of buildings, including one of the Pay de Gex’s most magnificent farm manors dating back to 1622, were scheduled for demolishment to be supplanted by more incongruous catalogue-style apartments.
The mayor owned the only local pharmacy. For both Ed and other concerned individuals, the mayor could benefit from development within the ‘bourg’ that would pull down these historic and culturally significant Cessy buildings prompting a significant rise of new inhabitants. Such projects could potentially produce hundreds of new customers for the mayor’s pharmacy, which also lay virtually opposite the threatened 1662 chateau. Few townsfolk were aware of this, Ed found, and the mayor, it seemed, had not bothered to inform people properly, such as informal warnings, before the permit boards went up. Attempts to alert the local French press met with silence (many local newspapers rely on advertising by property developers).
Public interest reporting about the destruction of French cultural heritage
As a Swiss-American journalist accredited to the United Nations in Geneva, Ed spends much of his working time outside of France. Since 2014, too, he has been based in Geneva. Furthermore, as a non-EU national, he has no voting or citizenship rights to oppose what he – and many others – saw as the despoliation of the village’s historic centre that numerous inhabitants admired for its quality of life and as a safe place to live for their children.
As an international journalist reporting in the public interest, however, Ed could write the story not as a purely local affair but rather as a piece incorporating a far wider implication for the problematic relations between French local politicians, developers and civil society. (The second edition of Global Geneva in April-May had articles on the issue from Claudine Girod-Boos and Mark Hartford, plus Claudine’s interview with Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Eva Joly, as well as an editorial sidebar on the Swiss situation).
With the French press largely ignoring the problem, Ed wrote a lengthy piece for the London Sunday Times, which published a two-page spread on 15 May 2016 about how French mayors were enabling the disappearance of their cultural heritage. In his legal complaint the mayor cited this article — “but has failed to point out anything wrong with my reporting,” Ed states. In any case his article focused on France and the Lake Geneva region, and not just Cessy. Protection of cultural heritage is a major issue on both sides of the Franco-Swiss border. Much of Ed’s reporting, too, has been based on hundreds of interviews and conversations with ordinary residents, both French and expatriate, about what they perceive to be conflicts of interest among their town halls, but against which they can do little.
At the same time, however, few French probably actually read the Sunday Times’ piece (it was not translated) or had access to its online paywall. As Ed stresses: “this is an issue that needs to be debated throughout France, but this will only happen if the French themselves are properly informed by their own media. My reporting is aimed at English-speakers world-wide.”
French libel law is defendant-friendly
In theory, people in France are much better off than in the United Kingdom or the United States in tools to defend themselves against claims of defamation. A 2006 study by the European law firm Taylor Wessing of the three jurisdictions states “the libel jurisdiction is generally more defendant friendly” (Defamation and privacy law and procedure in England, Germany & France, Spring 2006, page 10).
The starting point in rejecting a French defamation claim is the right of freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, it notes.
A defendant does not even need to prove allegations are true. “Defendants who are unable to establish truth can present evidence of good faith, such as belief in the truth of the statement, deadline pressures, desire to inform the public, and the use of the word ‘allegedly’.” Good faith defences stand if “the statement is based on a serious investigation, the statement concerns a matter of public importance, the tone and balance of the statement is measured and objective, and there is no trace of personal hostility in the statement.”
Surprise! You’re being sued
So Ed was shocked not just when the mayor slapped him with a law suit, but also when an examining magistrate decided to pass the case to a “tribunal correctionnel” (criminal court).
In the French judicial system it is difficult to see in advance what the charges actually concern. But a significant piece of evidence appears to be Ed’s note to the Procureur de la Republique, a local prosecutor. He wrote this both as a journalist and a private citizen on the advice of the Prefecture on 7 October 2016 alleging the mayor’s perceived conflicts of interest was a “form of corruption.” As the Prefecture pointed out: “if the procureur considers it worthy of investigation, he will do so.”
As with most journalists who report global concerns, Ed based his definition of conflict of interest on the norms and standards of most major international institutions, of which France is a signatory, ranging from the OECD and EU to the Council of Europe, World Bank and the U.N. itself. Also at issue is a Facebook posting to the same effect.
Several days later, Ed withdrew the letter to the Procureur on further advice that it should be up to local French cultural support organizations to take up the issue themselves. He also removed the Facebook posting as it could be taken out of context. “My job is to report in the public interest but I felt that tackling such issues is something ordinary French or EU nationals in the region should be doing themselves,” he said.
Initially, the local council backed cultural heritage
The Cessy mayor came into office in 2008 at the head of a new council proclaiming respect for quality of life, the environment, cultural heritage and security, Ed recalls. At first Ed thought the mayor and his council properly respected local interests. But the second mandate from 2014 onwards also saw the mayor elected president of the region’s Community of Communes; this time round, however, he seemed less sympathetic to calls for the protection of village culture and historic character.
When Ed and a British journalist interviewed the mayor for an article in 2014 for the Swiss English-language newspaper Le News, he recalls being surprised to hear the mayor argue that the Pays de Gex had little of cultural interest and hence was not worth bothering about. At the same time, the mayor denounced another mayor of allowing virtually uncontrolled urban development and being in cahoots, notably “shenanigans” (“magouilles“), with property developers.
As a result, Ed expected the mayor, in the interests of full transparency, to recuse himself from any of the Cessy urban development issues that might bring him profits and to be more than rigorous in following the procedures required. A number of concerned individuals had also proposed to the mayor to hold public hearings between residents and developers (as done in a nearby village), but such suggestions were apparently ignored. As some, including Ed, have noted, there were also other alleged irregularities in public procedures (documented in Mark Hartford’s article).
Questionable urban planning and other problems
Among the problems: a horizontal fissure appeared in a recently renovated 19th-century church building next to the construction site, forcing a temporary halt to construction. (As shown by photographs, the building literally cracked in half). This seemed to confirm apprehensions shared by many that this was not the place for a two-story underground parking lot. (Traditional houses in the area rarely have cellars because of the high water-table). The only information about it that residents could find was in the minutes of Cessy Council, noting an “amiable agreement” had been reached for building to resume.
Ed also learned that the mayor had been banned from operating as a pharmacist for 14 months in 2012 by the national professional association (Organization Nationale des Pharmaciens/ONP) for the illegal sale of pharmaceuticals and several other serious infringements, including the inappropriate storage of poisonous substances. While certain documents were made available to him by sources, it took Ed nearly three years to obtain the official confirming information from the ONP’s legal office in Paris,
Yet Ed could not find any indication that the mayor had informed the public or the Cessy Council when running for re-election in 2014, he reports. (A small Ferney-Voltaire newsletter mentioned the mayor’s quandary but with few details). At least two Council members privately informed Ed that they had only learned about the mayor’s alleged fraud much later after his election and were deeply shocked when the information filtered out. The Communauté of Communes refused to respond to Ed’s repeated phone calls and emails as to whether the mayor had officially told the Council about these illegal pharmaceutical activities prior to being elected President, also in 2014.
Both Ed and others, who had become aware of the ONP’s 14-month ban, considered his failure to be fully transparent as extremely serious. At least three sources interviewed by Ed with direct access to the construction projects, a property company employee, and two Cessy council members, maintained that the property company was fully aware of the mayor’s dilemma, Ed attests. All three suggested that the mayor’s efforts to keep his illegal activities secret had placed him in a compromising position, Ed observes.
“Such concerns were further voiced by a small group of residents who had also learned about the mayor’s illicit activities through their own sources,” Ed told me. “Several said they thought he was at risk of influence by outside interests and that he should have declared the issue long ago. “ In the interests of full transparency, it appears that the mayor never did this, Ed pointed out.
The mayor supports preservation
In the wake of protests and publicity (including an online petition signed by 800 people), the mayor has declared that he now fully supports the preservation of patrimoine in the Pay de Gex. “I understand the three 1622 buildings […] almost opposite his pharmacy may now be preserved,” says Ed. “But new apartments being constructed are ruining their historic setting.”
And the mayor is continuing his lawsuit against this international journalist. All the financial and political power in France seems on the side of officials and property developers who can throw monumental regulatory obstacles in the way of individuals with limited means. “This has already drained me of considerable resources in the form of time, effort and legal bills, a high price for someone seeking to perform one’s journalistic duty,” Ed observes.
Tougher regulations are not enough
One problem is that tougher regulations do not necessarily lead to less corruption, Transparency International points out. “Most Nordic EU Member States have much fewer rules and standards in place than other Member States but at the same time have relatively low levels of corruption and bribery.” There’s also a danger that “more ethics rules lead to more investigations and prosecutions, decreasing public trust while increasing collective costs”.
Perhaps French public attitudes on transparency and accountability are now changing. Allegations, so far unproven, of inappropriate payments by former Prime Minister François Fillon to his wife killed his Presidential election chances in 2017. Police arrested several local officials in the Paris region suspected of corruption in collaboration with a property developer. A young mayor in northeast France was accused of obfuscating council minutes granting a property contract to a real estate firm managed by his mother. Transparency International’s French office has been able to put together a database of at least 600 cases of illegal conflict of interest and embezzlement of public funds.
Global Geneva contributor Claudine Girod-Boos, based in Strasbourg, who reported all this for us last year, further quoted MEP Eva Joly as saying: “The time of impunity is over.” But “a culture of transparency in the public interest has enormous difficulty in establishing itself,” Claudine added.
The Cessy standoff is not just a storm in a teacup.
Peter Hulm is a former Reuters correspondent and editor for Swiss Broadcasting. He holds a university diploma in Environment and Development and studied politics for his Bachelor of Science degree.