Efforts by members of parliament and the vagueness of the "Perben Law" proposed by the justice minister revived a debate about journalists' rights, especially that of not having to reveal sources. The most dangerous clauses of the law were finally dropped but the measure was a real threat to investigative journalism and freelance reporters.

A proposed law to "adapt the legal system to the changed crime situation," presented to the cabinet on 9 April 2003 by justice minister Dominique Perben and approved by the lower house of parliament six weeks later, on 23 May, was a direct threat to the confidentiality of sources, which has little protection in France.

The measure initially allowed an examining magistrate, public prosecutor or police detective to "require any person, private or public institution or body, or any state organisation likely to have documents or information relevant to an investigation, including lists of names, to hand them over and reveal their contents" and said professional confidentiality was no defence (article 28). Refusal risked a fine of 3 750 euros. Exceptions could be made for some professions and media companies.

The senate watered down this clause on 8 October, limiting the material to "documents" and striking out "information." But it added new clauses undermining press freedom, increasing from three months to a year the time-limit for bringing charges for press offences, such as defamation, insults or violating the presumption of innocence. The three-month deadline is a vital defence tool in defamation cases when journalists must present proof of their affirmations and details of the "serious investigation" they are required to have made.

Article 2 of the 1931 law banning the naming of private parties associated with a case without court permission was repealed at the request of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which had criticised it.

However punishment for defamation that includes such details was increased by a fine of 45 000 euros. This clause was struck out by the national assembly during the second reading of the Perben measure on 28 November and the three-month prosecution deadline was also restored, except in cases involving racism and discrimination. Another amendment extended to journalists the protection enjoyed by lawyers from seizure of material, meaning they could legally refuse to hand them over.

The proposed Perben law, which was to be considered by the senate in early 2004, included direct attacks on press freedom which were later dropped but it still has shortcomings. A journalist's home has no special protection and the measure does not deal with confidentiality of sources for freelance journalists. French journalists do not have the right to hide the identity of sources except when giving court evidence.

During parliamentary debate on his measure, minister Perben opposed repealing article 36 of the 1881 press law punishing disrespect to a foreign head of state. This law has other outdated clauses, criticised by the ECHR, such as article 4, which gives the interior minister full powers to ban foreign publications.

An armed attack was made in 2003 on a journalist's car in Corsica, where working conditions for the media remain difficult.

Two journalists arrested

Nicolas Garriga, a cameraman for the Associated Press Television Network (APTN), and Gaël Elissade, a motorcyclist for the firm Motopress, were arrested in front of the Palais des Congrès in Paris on 21 February 2003 while reporting on the Franco-African Summit being held there. Police banned them from filming, checked their papers and took them to a police station. They were released four hours later.

Sylvère Selbonne, a reporter-photographer for the daily France-Antilles Guadeloupe, was arrested on 15 August while taking pictures of aid to victims of a hold-up at a fast-food restaurant in Abymes (Guadeloupe) in which several people were injured. When he refused orders to leave, police roughed him up and handcuffed him. He was insulted, kicked and hit on the head, held overnight and taken to hospital at his request for treatment. He filed a formal complaint against the police.

Threats and shootings

The empty car of Christine Clerc, a senior reporter with the daily Le Figaro, was shot up during the night of 4-5 September 2003 in Tolla, southern Corsica. She had written a humorous article in the paper on 1 September headed "Put out the fire and then clear off!" in which she deplored a 20 August bomb attack on the car of a policeman in Tolla. On 3 September, a copy of the article was pasted on a vehicle that blocked the entrance to where she was staying.

Clerc, who had been on holiday in Tolla, had met the policeman, from mainland France, on 28 August as he was leaving Corsica. She wrote a story about how he was forced to leave not long after helping to put out a fire that threatened the village. The article was criticised by many villagers, including mayor Jean-Baptiste Casalta, who accused her of giving Corsica a bad image. Clerc said she had never been attacked or threatened before because of her work. The anti-terrorist section of the Paris prosecutor's office was investigating.

Two journalists physically attacked

Vincent Kelner, of the state-run TV station France 2, was beaten up on 27 October 2003 by two thugs while doing a report in Créteil, a southeastern suburb of Paris, about a shooting that had killed a youth two days earlier. Kelner, who suffered concussion, filed a complaint and his employer joined the case. Police arrested a suspect.

Jean Bena, an influential gold mining operator, was given a four-month suspended prison sentence and fined 3,000 euros by a court in Cayenne (French Guiana) on 16 December for attacking journalist Frédéric Farine. He was also ordered to pay 1,500 euros damages and 800 euros costs. The court said the sentence was heavy for the offence because it was serious and because the accused was an influential figure.

An enraged Bena had insulted and beaten up Farine on 14 May while he was covering a murder trial of a former Bena employee for the TV station RFO Guyane. Bena accused the journalist of mentioning his name in a report. Two police motorcyclists present did not intervene. Plainclothes police eventually overpowered Bena but did not arrest him. Farine and Laurent Marot, local correspondent for the Paris daily Le Monde, had written articles about violence in the local alluvial gold mining industry.

Harassment and obstruction

A court in Villefranche-sur-Saône (near Lyons) ordered the monthly Lyon Mag on 10 January 2003 to pay _284,143 in damages to 56 wine-producing cooperatives in the Beaujolais region which had complained the magazine had "denigrated" their product. An order to pay the sum immediately was lifted on 5 February.

The article, in the July-August 2002 issue of the magazine, was headed "A respected expert says Beaujolais is not proper wine." François Mauss, chairman of the European Grand Jury, an association of professional wine-tasters, had criticised the way the wine was produced.

He told the author of the article, Jean Barbier, that it was "shitty wine." The magazine, which ran three pages about Beaujolais, also contained a less outspoken interview with Maurice Large, president of the Interprofessional Beaujolais Wine Association, headed "The quality of Beaujolais is not in question."

The court said that "by misrepresenting Beaujolais wine in such a disgusting way by comparing it to excrement," Mauss and Barbier had "exceeded the acceptable limits of their respective social roles as (even severe) critic and as journalist by seriously abusing their right to freedom of expression and publication."

The total damages awarded to the wine co-ops was calculated as one euro for every hectolitre of their annual wine production. The court also ordered Lyon Mag to pay for publishing the verdict in five newspapers (a total 60,000 euros) as well as the costs (6,000 euros) of bringing the case.

The Lyons appeals court reduced the damages on 13 August to 93,000 euros, the cost of publishing the verdict to 20,000 euros and legal costs of the case to 3,000 euros. The magazine is appealing the conviction, if necessary to the European Court of Human Rights.

The Paris appeals court upheld on 23 January a ban on the cable TV station Histoire broadcasting 80 hours of Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon's 1997-98 Bordeaux trial in 40 episodes in January and February. Papon, a top official in the Gironde department of occupied southwest France during World War II, was jailed for 10 years for complicity in crimes against humanity. The lower court that imposed the ban on 20 December 2002 said the broadcasts, coinciding with Papon's appeal against his sentence, would be "prejudicial to a fair hearing."

A complaint filed by Michel Bodineau, editor of the weekly Te Fenua Fo'ou in the French Pacific island of Wallis, for theft and obstruction of press freedom was rejected by the island's senior judge on 31 January. The tribal police of King Tomasi Kulimoetoke, had demanded on 21 March 2002 that Bodineau resign and close the paper because he had defied the king's orders by printing an editorial about a scandal involving local politician Make Pilioko, who had been given refuge in the royal palace after being convicted in 1999 of embezzling public funds. Pilioko was allowed to run in local elections in March 2002.

Police seized a computer hard-drive and a modem from the paper, preventing it from publishing. They were returned a few days later, but Bodineau closed the paper anyway, despite outside mediation in the case.

A dozen journalists were detained without explanation for two hours on 20 February in front of the French foreign ministry, where they were reporting on a demonstration against the visit to France of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

They included Grégory Roudier (cameraman) and Wan N'guyen (production assistant) of APTN ; Jacques Brinon, an Associated Press photographer; David Romeo, a Reuters reporter-photographer, and his motorcyclist Pascal Talleux; a cameraman, sound-man and journalist from the British TV station Skynews and Juliette Errington, their translator; Cécile Feuillatre, an Agence France-Presse (AFP) reporter and at least two journalists from the British paper The Sunday Telegraph.

The southern city of Orange, run by mayor Jacques Bompard of the far-right Front National party, stopped giving information to journalists of the regional daily La Provence on 26 March. Relations with the paper deteriorated in 2002 when the mayor's office accused it of supporting the opposition and reporting municipal activities in a biased and inaccurate way. The paper was cut off from marriage, birth and death announcements and all municipal photos and press releases.

The mayor's office put up a poster outside the town hall explaining "why you don't see any more news about the city" in the paper and also printed several articles in the official town magazine about media "disinformation." Christine Blanc and Stéphanie Esposito, two journalists on the paper, were personally accused several times by the mayor's office.

A bill to "adapt the legal system to the changed crime situation" was approved on first reading by the lower house of parliament (the chamber of deputies) on 23 May. Its articles 28 and 49 allowed an examining magistrate, public prosecutor or police detective to "require any person, private or public institution or body, or any state organisation likely to have documents or information relevant to an investigation, including lists of names, to hand them over and reveal their contents" and said professional confidentiality was no defence (article 28). Refusal risks a fine of 3 750 euros.

Police attacked freelance photographer Benjamin Béchet while he was covering a demonstration in Paris by actors and show business workers on 10 June. A plainclothes officer with a police armband tried to grab his camera as he was taking pictures of people being arrested. He shouted that he was a journalist but three riot policemen pinned him to the ground and handed his camera to a plainclothes officer before releasing him without asking to see his ID and or saying how he could get his camera back. Police officials opened an enquiry but by the end of the year, the camera had still not been returned.

Officials set upon Isabelle Simon, a Sipa Press agency photographer, at an Algerian music event staged by the town of Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris, on 20 June and told her not to take pictures of singer Cheikha Rimitti. She was insulted and taken out of the hall by Rimitti's agent, Nordine Gafaïti, as well as the concert organiser and a security guard, and her digital camera (the property of the agency) seized. It was later returned and she then withdrew a legal complaint she had filed against the officials and the town government.

Didier Lassinat, a cameraman for the NetPress news agency, was roughed up by a riot policeman who seized his camera at the end of a demonstration to support rural protest leader José Bové in the southern city of Montpellier on 26 June. It was returned the next day but the film had been tampered with and parts erased.

Caroline Sinz, a senior reporter with the state TV station France 3, was boycotted and harassed by nationalist militants during a 1-3 August conference in Corte, central Corsica, organised by nationalist groups Corsica Nazione, Indipendenza and the CAR nationalist prisoner defence association. Their leaders refused to be interviewed and she was threatened and insulted by activists. She is on a list of "undesirable" journalists, which also includes Christophe Forcari, of the daily Libération, and Franck Johannès, of the daily Le Monde.

A few days earlier, Henri Palazzo, press officer for Jean-Guy Talamoni, a Corsica Nazione member of the island parliament, had phoned the political desk of France 3 in Paris and said Sinz would not be welcome at the event and would be boycotted but not "physically harmed." The journalist had survived an attempt to kill her and received death threats in 2001 while she was covering the murder of nationalist leader François Santoni.

Senior defence ministry official Didier Lallemand issued an order 24 July classifying information about nuclear material as a defence secret. Journalists face up to five years in prison if they reveal such secrets. France was however one of the first signatories of the 1998 Aarhus Convention on the right to information about environmental matters. The ministry order also contradicted a European directive in January about the right to environmental information.

Two appeals were lodged with the French Council of State on 9 October calling for the order to be withdrawn. One was by the ecological organisation Greenpeace, CRIIRAD (an independent radiology research institute) and WISE-Paris. The other was filed by Reporters Without Borders, Writers and Journalists for Nature and the Environment (JNE) and the Association of Environmental Journalists (AJE). They accused Lallemand of exceeding his authority and undermining press freedom. It is for parliament to rule on such constitutional matters, not the government.

The head of prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's press office, Françoise Miquel, expressed "indignation" and "disappointment" on 26 August at a report by the Agence France-Press (AFP) news agency about Raffarin's political problems. In a letter to AFP managing director Bertrand Eveno, she criticised the author, Frédéric Dumoulin, for writing on 22 August that there a "power vacuum" because of the government's silence during the summer heat wave in which many people died.

Miquel charged that the term "seriously undermined the impartiality of the comment" because it was the same one that opposition Socialist Party leader François Hollande had used. She said it was a "serious violation of the professional objectivity required of a news agency journalist, especially one who is accredited to the prime minister's office."

On 23 October, a Paris court convicted Gilles Millet, of the monthly Corsica, of receiving a legally confidential document but cleared him of receiving another covered by professional confidentiality. It gave him a suspended fine of 1,000 euros.

Anti-terrorist police searched his home on 20 June 1998 as part of an investigation by Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière into "criminal association with a terrorist operation." This was four months after the murder of Corsica prefect Claude Erignac. At the time of the raid, Millet was Corsica specialist for the weekly L'Evénement du jeudi.

Police confiscated Millet's notebooks and two documents – a report covered by judicial confidentiality as part of an investigation into the pork industry in Corsica and a report by the financial inspectorate, covered by professional confidentiality. After the search, Millet was held by police for two days before being charged.

The court that convicted him said he must have known the report was legally protected. It said his prosecution was not an attack on the right to information but to "protect the reputation or rights of others and to protect the authority and impartiality of the judiciary."

The European Court of Human Rights has already criticised France for similar convictions, but French courts are not obliged to obey its rulings.


This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.