PARIS —French President Emmanuel Macron has championed his country as a leading defender of free expression, but French journalists and advocates condemn what they see as a government crackdown on press freedoms here.
The controversy began with a provision in a new security law that would ban filming police. The provision would allow the French government to fine offenders up to 45,000 euros ($53,300) and impose a one-year prison sentence for “disseminating by any means or medium whatsoever . . . the image of the face or any other identifying element of an officer . . . when engaged in a police operation.”
The situation escalated at a protest of this new provision Tuesday, outside the National Assembly. A journalist from France 3 — a public television channel — was arrested and detained by police for filming the demonstration, even after having presented law enforcement with his media credentials, according to a statement from the channel’s director.
Asked about the incident at a news conference Wednesday, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said that the journalist had not informed the police of his intention to cover the protest before doing so. “I would therefore remind you that if journalists cover demonstrations, in accordance with the law enforcement plan, they must approach the authorities,” Darmanin said.
Media leaders have condemned the proposed law, which the government has argued would protect police officers in the line of duty. Under fierce blowback from prominent news outlets, Darmanin’s office said Thursday that it would ensure that the new law exempted journalists from the police-filming ban, although the text of this proposed exemption has not yet been announced.
In a staff editorial, the French newspaper Le Monde said that the new law “grossly violates a democratic right.”
Edwy Plenel, the editor of Mediapart, a French investigative outlet, said in an interview that the government was questioning the foundations of a free press in France, guaranteed by an 1881 law. “The powers that be are trying to stop the press from doing its job reporting on state violence — it’s not just the police, it’s the state behind them,” he said.
French legal scholars also questioned the basis of the law, which they saw as a means for the government to attempt to avoid accountability even with an exemption for journalists. “If the law passes, you could not make a video showing the killing of George Floyd in France,” said Patrick Weil, a French constitutional expert.
Like the United States, France has recently experienced large protests related to alleged police brutality and race.
The French government’s campaign has undermined Macron’s attempts to present himself as a global advocate for press freedom, said Dov Alfon, the editor of Libération, another major French newspaper.
After the gruesome beheading last month of Samuel Paty, a high school teacher who showed caricatures of the prophet Muhammad to students, Macron doubled down on defending free expression as an essential French value.
“I will always defend in my country the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw,” he told Al Jazeera last month.
“The president of the republic presents himself as the champion of press freedom in the Muslim world,” said Alfon, the former editor of Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper. “He explains abroad that France is superior, or at least has culturally superior ideas, because here there are laws that guarantee the freedom to caricature, to express an opinion, to analyze and to inform.
“But returning to France, he allows his ministers to propose laws that resemble those of the countries he’s just criticized.”
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