French security bill undermines press freedom

2020-11-23. A new French bill raises considerable risks of infringement of several fundamental rights, in particular the right to privacy and freedom of information. Disarmed in the face of the new digital disorder, the government seems incapable of effectively regulating the violence of social networks, preferring instead to reinforce a repressive legislative arsenal.

by Vincent Peyrègne | November 23, 2020

A new French bill banning images of police sparks concern over freedom of information and civil rights. It raises considerable risks of infringement of several fundamental rights and undermines the rights to privacy and freedom of information. Disarmed in the face of the new digital disorder, the government seems incapable of effectively regulating the violence of social networks, preferring instead to reinforce a repressive legislative arsenal.

The “global security” bill was passed by the National Assembly on November 20, as part of an accelerated procedure justified by the state of emergency currently in force in France. This exceptional procedure did not allow for the necessary debate on a text that poses apparent risks to several fundamental rights, particularly the right to information. Before being adopted, it will have to be presented to the Senate before being validated by the Constitutional Council.

Article 24 of the “global security” bill is one of the most contested. Amended by the Assembly during the national vote on November 20, it still does not respond to the substantive concerns raised by this law. The article provides for a one-year prison sentence and a 45,000 euro fine for the dissemination of the “image of the face or any other element of identification” of a police officer during an intervention when the aim is to “harm his or her physical or psychological integrity”. On Friday, November 20, the MPs adopted a last-minute government amendment mentioning that the article will apply “without prejudice to the right to inform” and characterizing more precisely – through the word “manifest” – the intention to harm the forces of law and order.

An insidious weakening of the foundations of the Freedom of the Press Act

While it represents a step forward, the new version of the text remains imprecise and subject to multiple interpretations. The text still does not provide the necessary guarantees. Reassuring, the champions of the text believe that “it is not the images taken by journalists that pose a problem; they are not concerned since the law targets “malicious” publications”. The question of the interpretation that could be made of this provision poses serious risks that it is impossible to control in the current state of the text. In this context, the Human Rights Defender Claire Hédon called on Friday for the pure and simple withdrawal of the controversial article of law. The ban on filming law enforcement officers for malicious purposes is indeed unnecessary and potentially harmful to the control of the action of law enforcement officers.

French professionals and several NGOs defending rights have strongly mobilised to denounce the excesses of the security text. Several journalists were arrested at the beginning of the last week at the end of a rally in Paris organised by trade unions, journalists’ organisations and human rights groups. The UN Human Rights Council itself ruled that the proposal, as it stands, is a serious violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to privacy, the right to freedom of expression and opinion, in contradiction with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the days before the vote, the National Human Rights Commission (CNCDH) had also expressed its strong disapproval of the bill. The CNCDH, an institution for the protection and promotion of human rights, which is responsible for advising the government and parliament on this issue, stated that “through various measures, this text aims to give guarantees to the forces of law and order, in particular the ban on broadcasting images of police officers. It transfers sovereign powers to municipal police officers and private security agents, in direct conflict with Article 12 of the French Declaration of Human Rights and Citizen. “The CNCDH was unable to share this analysis before the parliamentary debate, as it is formally a bill proposed by deputies and not a government bill. This, added to the triggering of the accelerated procedure, is emblematic of the deterioration of the democratic debate, denounces the CNCDH.

The French Human Rights Defender recalled the public nature of the action of the security forces and considers that informing the public and publishing images relating to police interventions are legitimate and necessary for democratic functioning, as well as for the exercise of her own missions to control the behaviour of the security forces. The Declaration of Human Rights rightly affirms that all civil servants must be “accountable for their administration”.

In addition to this highly controversial bill, a new national law and order scheme presented on September 16, 2020, by the Interior Minister requires journalists to hold a press card and to be accredited by the authorities to cover a demonstration. This provision led to several arrests during the first demonstration on November 17 against the proposed law on global security, including that of a journalist from France Télévisions who was held in police custody for around 12 hours.

A lose-lose text

The government-backed text is counterproductive from a rights’ protection perspective and adds to an increasingly illegible and contradictory legislative arsenal. It is very worrying that with one law after another, what we have taken decades to build can be undone overnight, in the long run. This signals a central turning point in French politics. In 2008, a circular from the Ministry of the Interior recalled that “freedom of information, whether it is provided by the press or by private individuals, takes precedence over the right to respect for one’s image or private life, provided that this freedom is not compromised by an attack on personal dignity or the secrecy of investigations or enquiries”.

Rather than legislating excessively and urgently, at the risk of lastingly weakening the rules of democracy and its fundamental rights, it would be preferable to consider the means made available to public services to restore trust and an open debate in the digital age. By undermining press freedom, this new law, if passed as it stands, can only increase mistrust of the news media and damage public debate.

It is not by increasing opacity that the French authorities will respond effectively to the real challenge of violence in the digital space. It merely adds discredit to institutions that are already in bad shape and strikes a blow at the responsibility of the news media to ensure their transparency. It is a lose-lose text.

Version française

Vincent Peyrègne

Vincent Peyrègne took up duties as Chief Executive Officer of WAN-IFRA in 2012. Prior to joining WAN-IFRA, he was Head of Development at Edipresse in Switzerland (now Tamedia) with responsibility for audience insights, editorial marketing research and product development, before joining the office of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication.

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