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    A demonstrator sporting a mask representing French President Emmanuel Macron holds a yellow flower during yellow vest protests, in Rouen on April 6, 2019

    'Thought Police'? French Journalists Face Legal Threat for 'Doing Their Jobs'

    © AFP 2019 / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD
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    Kit Klarenberg
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    Several recent events have precipitated widespread debate over freedom of the press in France, particularly under President Emmanuel Macron's government, and whether the country's laws governing whistleblowing - and the flow of information - need to be radically reformed.

    A trio of French journalists — Geoffrey Livolsi and Mathias Destal, cofounders of investigative resource Disclose, and Benoit Collombat of Radio France — have been summoned to meet with the General Directorate for Internal Security (Direction Generale de la Securite Interieure, DGSI), after playing a pivotal role in publishing damning classified files exposing France's clandestine involvement in the war in Yemen.

    On 15th April, Disclose, in partnership with Radio France, Mediapart, Arte Info, and Konbini, published a series of reports — Made in France - detailing the hitherto unknown "massive use of French-made weapons" in the war, which has now entered its fourth year.

    The centrepiece of the five-part series was a 15-page French military intelligence document, extensively detailing how French-made artillery, tanks and laser-guided missile systems have been used against civilians in the conflict, suggesting the French government may be complicit in war crimes as a result.

    Not intended for public consumption, the report was apparently presented to President Emmanuel Macron at a defence committee meeting convened at the Elysee Palace on 3rd October 2018.

    Five days later, a heavily edited version of the report, reduced to a mere six-pages, was dispatched "to a much wider list of addressees, numbering around 40" in other government ministries — and the "most sensitive information" had all but disappeared, notably maps noting the position of French-made weapons in Yemen, and an audit of the number and nature of French-made weapons involved in the war.

    ​Among other shock revelations, the report indicates dozens of CAESAR howitzers — one of French state-owned arms manufacturer Nexter Systems' most powerful weapons, which can fire six shells per minute up to 42 kilometres — are deployed along the Saudi-Yemeni border. A map titled "population under threat of bombs" shows 48 CAESAR guns are positioned close to the Saudi-Yemeni border, turrets facing three different ‘strike zones' in Yemen, which contain a myriad of "towns, villages, farms and farmers' hamlets".

    French military intelligence estimates 436,370 Yemeni civilians are threatened by potential CAESAR fire — but despite the risk to innocent lives, the report also notes 129 are scheduled to be delivered to the Saudi-led coalition "between now and 2023". 

    Ne Dis Rien!

    French officials have long-denied the country is playing any role in the conflict, a stance that endures even in the wake of Disclose's bombshell report.

    "To my knowledge, French weapons are not being used in any offensive in the war in Yemen. I do not have any evidence that would lead me to believe French arms are behind the origins of civilian victims," Defence Minister Florence Parly said 18th April.

    Despite this, Livolsi, Destal and Collombat are due to be questioned by the DGSI on 14th May, rather suggesting the documents are authentic, and official denials are suspect as a result — moreover, there are indications authorities began investigating the possible "compromise of national defence secrets" following a complaint by the French defence ministry in December 2018, further reinforcing the likely veracity of the files released by Disclose.

    In a statement, Disclose said the classified documents were "of major public interest" and dubbed the agency's investigation "an attack on the freedom of the press" — the organisation's stance is supported by a coalition of 37 French media organisations, which published a joint statement in support of the three journalists summoned to meet with investigators.

    Speaking to Radio France Internationale 25th April, Livolsi said the "crux" of the investigation was to uncover who disclosed the files, and in the process "undo protections for journalists' sources" — he pledged they would all exercise their right to remain silent and not divulge the identity of the leaker(s).

    The episode has precipitated widespread debate over freedom of the press in France, with 37 media organisations issuing a joint statement in support of Disclose's work.

    "We express our whole and full solidarity with our colleagues, who were only doing their jobs — bringing information of public interest to citizens on the consequences of French arm sales. Since these revelations, the government has remained silent on the facts. For having exposed this information journalists now find themselves under legal threat, for an offence punishable by a prison sentence. In these times of serious concern for freedom of information, these summons remind us of the need to strengthen legal protections for journalistic sources in France, which the European Court of Human Rights has called a ‘cornerstone' of press freedom," the statement reads.

    The trio have neither been arrested nor indicted as yet, but as Disclose itself has noted "events, information or documents covered by national defence secrecy" are excluded from French laws established to protect whistleblowers — meaning the journalists could face significant penalties if found guilty of compromising national defence secrets.

    However, French legal protections for whistleblowers are even more limited than the organisation implies, covering only violations of the law and "serious risks and harms" in respect of the environment, health or public security. Ministers involved in crafting the protections specifically invoked the case of Antoine Deltour, a French citizen who exposed secret tax arrangements between Luxembourg authorities and multinational companies, and was almost imprisoned for his efforts, as an inspiration for the regulations — but under them Deltour could still face a jail sentence in his home country today for similar activities.

    Wider Concerns

    Moreover, anxieties about freedom of the press in France have been rising ever since Macron's election as President in May 2017. Within a month of winning the vote, his labour minister Muriel Pénicaud reacted to the publication of leaked information about proposed government labour law reforms by filing a criminal complaint against the then-unknown leaker, under laws which treat the receipt by journalists of confidential information as receipt of stolen goods, and state the act of possessing or transmitting something known to be the "result of a crime" constitutes a criminal act.

    The next January, Macron introduced legislation banning 'fake news' and strictly regulating social media during French elections, which he claimed would "protect democracy", but also acknowledged was motivated by his own experiences of negative press coverage on the campaign trail. During the 2017 campaign, allegations he was gay, and held a secret bank account in the Bahamas — which Macron denied in the strongest terms — circulated widely on the internet and beyond.

    The law, duly passed in November, allows political parties to report false or "implausible" stories, or news articles that could "determine" the outcome of an election, to authorities — judges are then given 48 hours in which to decide whether to impose an injunction on the offending information. If a story does become subject to embargo, anyone breaching the ban faces one year in prison and a fine of €75,000 — and the French media regulator could even apply to remove broadcasters' rights to air content in France outright.

    The proposals were controversial from the moment they were mooted, and remain so today — political parties, academics, media organisations and civil society organisations have accused the provisions of amount to state censorship. Les Republicains representatives accused Macron of trying to create a "thought police" in the country, with Constance Le Grip calling the law "useless, redundant, inadequate, dangerous, an attack on freedom of expression and badly written [which] only raises concerns instead of bringing solutions". France Insoumise likewise said the laws were unnecessary and would be ineffective, particularly given the inherent difficulty of defining the very concept of 'fake news'.

    Most recently, the Macron administration has been criticised for failing to condemn or punish vicious police actions towards journalists covering Gilets Jaunes protests. Among other attacks, journalists — both mainstream and independent alike — have had stun grenades and flashball rounds fired at them while covering the protests, despite wearing identifying helmets and "presse" armbands.

    Allo Place Beauvau, which tracks such incidents, estimates that as of 26th April, at least 92 reporters have been victims of "unprecedented" police violence since November 2018, with 17 assaulted by law enforcement officials during the 20th April protests alone. That protest also saw freelance journalists Gaspard Glanz and Alexis Kraland arrested.

    Reporters Without Borders state Glanz's "heavy-handed arrest" and resultant 48-hour detention "were not justified by his inappropriate gesture towards the policeman who had just given him a violent push". Similarly, the organisation said the decision to ban Glanz from covering future protests was "disproportionate" and constitutes obstruction of the right to report.

    "The many cases of police violence towards journalists is quite simply chilling. It is especially disturbing to see the security forces trampling on the freedom to inform in this manner. On the eve of further protests, we urge them to respect the basic rules of press freedom," RWB secretary-general Christophe Deloire commented 26th April.

    Fittingly, the 20th April protest fell a mere two days after RWB published its its 2019 World Press Freedom Index, in which France is now ranked 32nd out of 180 countries, one of the lowest scores in Western Europe.

    Its overview for the country states attacks and harassment targeting news media and journalists had "increased dangerously" over 2018.

    "The law on business secrets adopted in June 2018 has exemptions for journalists, but reporters were denied access to the documents they needed during the "Implant Files" investigation [which revealed health authorities failed to protect millions of patients from poorly tested implants].The Bollore business group continued to bring abusive lawsuits in a systematic manner against investigative journalists who tried to cover certain aspects of its activities. Also known as SLAPPs, such lawsuits serve to harass and intimidate, even if later abandoned. France's journalists are also increasingly exposed to online harassment and [targeting] by all kinds of trolls hidden behind screens and pseudonyms," the report stated.

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    fake news, France, social media, propaganda, Yemeni Civil War, Yemen, France
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