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France's new security bill attacks press freedom

Volos 2018 | Luisa von Richthofen
Luisa von Richthofen
November 28, 2020

A new bill aims to ban the dissemination of images of police officers on duty. If signed into law, it would be a danger to press freedom in a country where police violence is not uncommon, says DW's Luisa von Richthofen.

Demonstrators in Paris, Eiffel Tower in the background
Image: Charles Platiau/REUTERS

This week at the Place de la Republique in Paris, there were scenes that had become less common during the coronavirus pandemic: A gathering of some 500 activists and asylum-seekers, mostly men from Afghanistan whose emergency camp in a Paris suburb had been dismantled.

Not knowing where to go as they were not offered any alternative accommodation, the asylum-seekers had decided to set up their light blue tents in the center of the French capital, on a square known for its political demonstrations.

When the police arrived to dismantle this new makeshift camp, there were more scenes that have become all too familiar. The sound of screams, people were pushed and kicked. Police using tear gas and batons. Police officers tore apart the tents. In one case, they picked one up shook it so hard that a man fell to the ground.

New French bill sparks outrage

One policeman was filmed as he hit a reporter over and over again. The images of the brutality have rocked the country. These are images that will soon be illegal to spread.

Attack on press freedom

One of the goals of President Emmanuel Macron's controversial new security bill is to protect police officers from violence. However, for weeks ahead of its passing into law the debate focused on Article 24, which outlaws the dissemination of images of police officers carrying out their duty if these "harm the[ir] physical or mental integrity" and there are identifying factors such as their face. The punishment is a fine of up to €45,000 ($58,350) and a year in jail.

Luisa von Richthofen
DW's Luisa von RichthofenImage: DW/P. Böll

With an eye on the next elections, the French president is hoping to woo right-wing voters and is trying to come across as a man of "law and order." But critics say the new law is a shameful attack on press freedom. They are right.

Police violence is not uncommon in France. There have been numerous incidents of excess violence in recent years. Adama Traore was 24 when he died in police custody. During the Yellow Vest protests, four people were killed and there were almost 350 head injuries, 28 eyes were damaged and five hands were ripped off.

A democratic society should encourage those who document state-sanctioned excesses of violence. The new law makes this almost impossible.

Government refuses to back down

The law has provoked the ire of many, including journalist associations. Even the European Commission felt compelled to point out to Macron's government that members of the media should be able to "work freely." Amnesty International said the law was "dangerous for basic rights." As a result, the government added a clause to Article 24 saying that it should not "prejudice the legitimate interest of the public to be informed." But this is a ridiculous fig leaf.

Read more: Paris police officers suspended over beating of Black man

Article 24 should be removed

The only way to protect freedom of the press would be to get rid of the article altogether. If this is really about protecting police officers, it is unnecessary anyway. It is already illegal to threaten and insult police officers, even on social media. Article 24 does not add anything in this regard.

Moreover, it is worded so vaguely that it opens the floodgates to abuse. Who will judge whether a police officer's "physical or mental integrity" has been harmed? The person concerned by the offense and making an arrest, i.e. the police officer. It is enough for a police officer to feel threatened.

This law will allow the police to take action against journalists and others filming demonstrations and broadcasting on social network platforms. Even if in the end they are not charged, they will have been forced to interrupt their work. Yet, such footage is an important means of documenting police violence.

A dangerous law

This is a dangerous law. France is a free and democratic state and should remain so. There are reactionary forces in the country who would like to come to power. Every law that restricts basic rights today offers future governments the possibility to clamp down even further.

Journalists in France — or anywhere else in Europe — should not have to fear being arrested by the police at will.

It is sad that the French president — who just weeks ago was presenting himself to the world as the defender of freedom of speech — does not necessarily agree.

This article was translated from German.