Freedom of expression was a hot topic in France during 2004, what with new press offences, the banning of the Lebanese TV station Al-Manar, a new law about the Internet, concern about protecting journalistic sources and journalists being roughed up or injured.

After many legal complications, parliament approved a law on 30 December 2004 setting up a watchdog body to fight discrimination and inequality that also amended the 1881 press law. It introduced new offences, including incitement to hatred and violence, along with defaming or insulting "a person or group of people because of their sex or sexual orientation or their disability," which will be punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros.

This was a big setback, since the so-called "Guigou Law" in 2000 had abolished imprisonment for press offences such as defamation and insults. The new law also clashed with rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which tends to promote freedom of expression rather than curbing it.

France's top supervisory body, the Council of State, gave the Eutelsat satellite firm a two-day deadline on 13 December to stop carrying the Lebanese TV station Al-Manar, saying it was broadcasting anti-Semitic material. Reporters Without Borders condemned some of the station's content but said it was a bad decision and that such an important issue should have been thoroughly debated and thought out.

The so-called "Perben Law," approved by parliament on 11 February, was good news for press freedom because it abolished (in line with ECHR rulings) the offences of insulting a foreign head of state and a clause of a 1931 law banning publication, without court permission, of who was granted interested party status in legal cases.

But there was concern about how extra powers of requisition given to police detectives, state prosecutors and examining magistrates would be used. Articles 80 and 116 of the Perben Law say documents cannot be seized from media firms without their permission. If they do not comply with a requisition order, firms will not be liable to the normal fine of 3,750 euros for failing to respond "as soon as possible." But journalists, as individuals, must respond to the requisitions.

Reporters Without Borders lobbied to get the rule (article 56-2 of the code of criminal procedure) that a judge must be present at a search of media offices to be extended to journalists' homes, but the proposal was rejected by senators and deputies.

The new law is thus a major threat to the privacy of sources and to independent and investigative journalists who keep a lot of material at their homes. As soon as they are thought "likely to have documents relative to an investigation," they are required to hand them over on request to a detective or prosecutor as part of a preliminary investigation or to an examining magistrate, on pain of being fined 3,750 euros.

The Digital Economy Law (LEN), approved by parliament on 13 May, then amended and endorsed on 13 June by the Constitutional Council, threatened Internet freedom of expression by making Internet service providers (ISPs) responsible (article 2) for material put out through their servers and obliging them to act promptly to block it as soon as they are told about "clearly illegal" material.

The ISP must therefore make a judgement about the material. Online experts fear that ISPs, who have criticised the law, will be inclined to block access to all content that simply might be "illegal" for fear of prosecution.

Nine journalists physically attacked

Sound-man Jérôme Florenville, cameraman Jean-Yves Charpin and Hervé Bouchaud, a reporter with the "90 Minutes" programme on the privately-owned TV station Canal+, were physically attacked on 11 March by members of a Koranic school in Grisy-Suisnes, near Paris. They had been investigating the radical Muslim Tabligh movement for six months. Florenville was beaten with an axe-handle and hospitalised with a broken nose and facial injuries, while the other two were slightly injured. The journalists and Canal + filed formal complaints.

Three journalists were roughed up by the CRS riot police while covering a demonstration in front of a police station in the southern city of Cannes on 15 May to support colleagues arrested earlier that day during the occupation of a cinema by protesting show business workers and their sympathisers. Gwenaël Rihet, a cameraman for the public TV station France 3, was thrown to the ground, handcuffed and taken to a police station. He was held for several hours and then taken to hospital with head injuries. The TV station filed a complaint.

A journalist for the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency was roughly shoved by riot police when he tried to help Rihet and a Norwegian journalist said he had been manhandled by them.

Freelance photographer Georges Bartoli, of the Reuters news agency, received minor leg injuries from a stun grenade blast while covering an anti-GM crops protest in the southern town of Valdivienne on 25 September. He said he was clearly identifiable as media, with a press armband and two cameras round his neck, and was some distance from the protesters when the grenade was thrown in his direction.

Alain Darrigrand, of France 2, and Christophe Garnier, of the privately-owned TV stations LCI and TF1, said they too were targeted by police during the demonstration.


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