Chilling statement

Municipal government threatens to sue local newspaper

The village of Sainte-Pétronille, Que. threatened to sue local newspaper Autour de l’île if editors published an article discussing citizen concerns about the municipality’s new general manager. 

In a letter sent to the newspaper on Jan. 8, 2024, the municipality also threatened to sue if the newspaper reported on comments made by citizens who had spoken about the general manager at a public council meeting in Dec. 2023, reported Radio-Canada

At the meeting, citizens had raised concerns about the newly hired general manager, who had reportedly been the subject of an investigation into “serious misconduct” during her previous job at another municipality. In addition to threatening the newspaper, the municipality also threatened to sue almost 100 other residents who had signed a petition asking for more information on the manager’s hiring. 

In the letter, the municipality’s lawyers argued that the newspaper should not report on the comments because “The newspaper’s mission is to report the current affairs of the municipality, and this subject is of a private nature and should never have been discussed in a public session.”

The municipality’s lawyers also noted in the letter that the newspaper receives funding from the regional government, and wrote that it was “unacceptable that the newspaper uses public funds given to it by local municipalities to publish articles that aim to denigrate municipal employees.” They added that if the newspaper did publish the article, the municipality would contact the regional government “to make them aware of the situation and to ensure that it cannot happen again.” 

Autour de l’île editor-in-chief Marc Cochrane said that the newspaper interpreted that as a threat to its funding. As a result of the letter, the newspaper’s publisher chose not to publish the article, in order to “protect the financial health of the newspaper,” Cochrane told the Journal de Québec

The legal threat also affected how the newspaper will approach future reporting on the subject, Cochrane told Radio-Canada: “There is still the sword of Damocles of a lawsuit, so I think we will proceed with great caution.” 

“This is the perfect example of a SLAPP lawsuit,” said Éric-Pierre Champagne, president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec. 

In an investigation of the incident, the Quebec Municipal Commission, a provincial government agency charged with overseeing municipal governance, concluded that the threat to the newspaper’s funding was “likely to harm press freedom, particularly given the context of financial precariousness which affects all media.” The Commission noted that “It must be clear to journalists that public funds paid to the media are not dependent on loyalty to their funder when it comes to issues of public interest.”