When newspaper reporter Brigitte McCann spent nine months undercover as a member of the Raelian sect in 2003, the resulting articles caused a stir in Quebec and won her the province's top journalism prize. Her Journal de Montreal reports revealed a darker side of a group generally dismissed as UFO-believing clowns: Its leader believes he has been targeted for assassination by the CIA, he demands generous contributions from his 55,000 followers and his entourage includes "angels" prepared to die to protect him.
But in a decision that one lawyer says further restricts the media's freedom in Quebec, a judge has ruled that the Journal's "clandestine" investigation went too far. He has ordered its parent company, Sun Media Corp., to pay $9,000 in damages to two Raelians who sued for invasion of privacy.
The publicity-hungry Raelians celebrated the decision with a news release yesterday calling it "a great victory for human rights and freedoms in Quebec."
The plaintiffs, whose names are withheld in the published judgment, both said they had suffered embarrassment and loss of revenue after being identified as senior figures close to sect leader Claude Vorilhon, who goes by the name Rael. Their photos, taken from a pamphlet distributed at a Raelian gathering, were published.
A woman who is a member of Mr. Vorilhon's inner circle of "angels," told Quebec Court's small-claims division that her practice as a psychologist suffered after she was publicly identified as a high-ranking Raelian. Two patients called the day the article was published to say they no longer wanted her to treat them, she said, and the medical clinic where she worked asked her to move out.
The other plaintiff, a general contractor, was identified by the newspaper as president of the company on which the Raelians UFOland headquarters lies in Valcourt, northeast of Montreal. He testified that he has attained "Level 4" in the Raelians six-level hierarchy, making him a "guide." He is in charge of the organization in eastern Quebec.
Although he wears a Raelian medallion in his day-today life, including when he appeared before the court, he testified that some of his employees made fun of him after the Journal article was published. He said someone he had hoped to hire declined the job offer out of fear of being associated with the Raelians.
The newspaper maintained that even if some harm were caused to the plaintiffs, it was outweighed by the public interest of learning how the Raelians operate. Ms. McCann, who is no longer with the paper, agreed to go undercover at a time when the Raelians were attracting international media attention with their false claim that they had cloned a human. The Journal also argued that the plaintiffs did not make a secret of their Raelian connections. It submitted evidence that a simple Internet search turned up articles written by the woman for the Raelian newsletter Contact.
Quebec Court Judge Charles Grenier begins his lengthy decision by summarizing the Raelian beliefs. "Let's simply remember that Rael, who was born in France, claims to be the product of the union of an Eloha, a member of a family of extraterrestrials, the Elohim, and an Earthling, and that after having received the good word from [the Elohim], who presented themselves to him at the beginning of his adult life, he gave himself the mission of preparing the Elohims return to Earth and creating favourable conditions for humans on Earth for their eternal care by them," the judge writes.
He concludes that the Journal was not justified in infiltrating the Raelians because information about the sect was publicly available. And he suggests accepting an undercover press investigation of the Raelians leads to a slippery slope.
"If the activities of a group or organization are legal and of a private nature, what can justify the use of so-called clandestine investigation methods in the name of the public right to information?" Judge Grenier asked.
"The non-conformity of ideas and activities? Their bizarreness? Their occult character? General disapproval? And what else?"
The judge found that the publication of the plaintiffs' pictures and personal information infringed their right to privacy. The woman was awarded $7,000 in damages and the man $2,000. Sun Media was ordered to pay the two another $1,000 to cover their court costs.
Bernard Pageau, director of legal affairs for Sun Media Corp., said the company received the ruling on April 15, and has not decided whether to seek judicial review before Superior Court. He called the decision "badly founded," noting that the offending photos came from a pamphlet that was distributed to 800 Raelians from around the world. "It is not a private photo," he said. He added that infiltrating the group was the only avenue to learn about an organization that "controls its message very well."
Other Raelians have been unsuccessful in lawsuits against the newspaper over the same series of articles, he said.
Montreal lawyer Mark Bantey, who specializes in media law, said the decision could set a precedent for Quebec media. "Because the judge took so much care to write a carefully written decision, it will be cited in the future, especially by the Raelians," he said.
Already, media in Quebec are more restricted because of privacy protections in the Civil Code. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled against a weekly Quebec newspaper that had published a woman's photo without her permission. "Freedom of expression should not vary from one province to another," Mr. Bantey said.