Growing restriction and state violations against journalists covering continuous protests in France

Peaceful Assembly

As the “yellow vest” protests against inequality continue in France, in April 2019, President Emmanuel Macron signed into law the controversial “Anti-rioters” law that contains provisions restrictive to the freedom of assembly. The legislation gives security forces greater powers during demonstrations.

Although the Constitutional Council did not approve the problematic parts of the legislation that would have allowed authorities to ban any individual "posing a particularly serious threat to public order" from taking part in demonstrations, other restrictive provisions were approved. The Council approved provisions that could still result in arbitrary restrictions of the freedom of assembly by giving the authorities the power to search bags and cars in and around demonstrations if demanded by a prosecutor, and criminalised protesters who conceal their faces at a demonstration, punishable by a year in prison and a fine of 15,000 Euros.

The bill was approved by parliament in February 2019 and authorities say it aims to crack down on violence that has marred the anti-government "yellow vest" protest movement which began in November 2018. The CIVICUS Monitor previously highlighted concerns over the bill regarding the mentioned provision that may result in curbing the freedom of assembly.

Authorities pledge accountability for violations against protesters

In May 2019, during an interview with the French newspaper Le Parisien, the Paris prosecutor Rémy Heitz gave the assurance that police officers accused of the use of illegal force and violations during the "yellow vest" demonstrations would be brought to justice.

Official figures by the Ministry of the Interior, published by local media, confirm that 2,448 Yellow Vest protesters and 1,797 police officers have been wounded since the beginning of the Yellow Vest protest on 17th November 2018 and up to 13th May 2019.

The Paris Prosecutor further confirmed that 174 investigations into alleged police violations during the protests have been opened: 171 entrusted to the General Police inspector (Inspection générale de la Police nationale, IGPN) and 3 cases to the General Inspectorate of the National Gendarmerie (IGGN). At this point, no police officer or gendarme has been indicted, but 57 cases have been handed over to the public prosecutor's office for further analysis. Several cases are linked to the (mis)use of "non-lethal" weapons such as the Defence Ball Launchers. The CIVICUS Monitor had previously reported that civil society and international organisations had requested outlawing the use of such weapons in demonstrations for the serious harm inflicted on many protesters.

Additionally, the Paris Prosecutor said that 2,907 protesters have been arrested since the beginning of the protests in November 2018: nearly half (1,304) of these arrests resulted in a dismissal and 515 were tried in immediate court. There are 30 ongoing investigations that include “the most serious and complex cases: the assault on law enforcement agencies, the looting of luxury signs or the rampage at the Arc de Triomphe”.

Expression

According to journalists and their trade unions, there has been growing pressure by the security forces on journalists covering protests in France.

In April 2019, two journalists were arrested during the continuing “yellow vest” anti-government protests in Paris. On 20th April 2019, police arrested video journalists Gaspard Glanz and Alexis Kraland in separate incidents during the protests.

The freelance photo-journalist Gaspard Glanz was arrested by police on charges of “participation in a group aiming to commit violence or damages” and “offence against officials representing the public authority”. A video of the arrest published by the media shows that Glanz complained to police officers guarding the “yellow vest” protests that he had been affected by tear gas, and after another officer pushed Glanz, he responded with an obscene gesture. This act lead to Glanz being arrested and held in police custody for 48 hours. The court released him on the condition that he be barred from staying in Paris on every proceeding Saturday, the days when “yellow vest” protests are held, and on 1 May, when large demonstrations were expected, until his contempt of authority trial on 18 October 2019.

Glanz’s Lawyer Raphael Kempf stated that the 48-hour period of custody was “disproportionate and illegal” and amounted to “an affront to freedom of the press and the freedom to inform”.

The journalist community condemned the arrest of Glanz and said that banning him to attend the protests “amounts to preventing him from doing his job as a journalist.” The ban was finally dismissed by the criminal court of Paris due to insufficient grounds, allowing him to take part in the protests on 1 May 2019. The arrest of Glanz was widely denounced by the public, some politicians and the journalist community.

On 20 April 2019, police also arrested freelance video reporter Alexis Kraland.Kraland said that he was arrested because he refused to hand over his camera to the police and to be searched. He was detained for eight hours for allegedly participating in a violent group.

Over 350 journalists, media outlets and photographers denounced the growing number of state violations against media covering the protests and said journalists are experiencing “deliberate efforts to prevent” them from working, while the conditions have become “increasingly risky, difficult, if not impossible” as they often face physical violence and abuse by police. They said the arrests and detentions of journalists on charges of “participation in a group aiming to commit violence or damages”, despite clearly identifying themselves as media, was the latest “repressive step”.

The journalists stated:

“For three years now, we have been witnessing a deliberate attempt to prevent us from working, documenting, and testifying to what is going on during the protests. There have been no demonstrations or gatherings in recent months without a journalist having been physically and verbally abused by the police..”

In another open letter, more than 20 journalists’ associations drew attention to the difficulties they face for covering the “yellow vest” protests, saying that they have been “regularly targeted by police” for doing their job.In an open letter, signed by journalists’ associations, they claim that 79 journalists have been victims of police violence since the beginning of the “yellow vest” protests.

Eight journalists summoned for interrogation by French intelligence services over their reporting

Civil society organisations and the trade union of journalists also raised concerns over the number of journalists summoned for interrogation by the domestic intelligence services for publishing stories of public interest. According to Mapping Media Freedom and other media reports, eight journalists have been summoned by the intelligence agency, the French Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure (DGSI), in relation to publications exposing the “Benalla affair” – president Macron's former aide, Alexandre Benalla, beating a May Day protester in 2018 and also about alleged connection to a Russian oligarch; and the use of French arms in Yemen.

The journalists summoned for investigation:

  • In May 2019, the DGSI summoned Le Monde’s journalist who broke the Benalla revelation as well as the president of Le Monde’s board of directors, Louis Dreyfus.
  • In April and May 2019, French Intelligence Services also summoned four journalists from the investigative media "Disclose" and a reporter from Radio France following their articles on French weapons sold to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates being used in the war in Yemen. The journalists were questioned as part of the preliminary investigation for “compromising national defence secrecy” opened by the Paris prosecutor’s office after the Ministry of the Armed Forced lodged a complaint. They have been questioned about the source of the information revealed.
  • In February 2019, the DGSI also reportedly summoned for questioning a journalist from the TV news show Quotidien together with a sound engineer and video reporter working on the show. Their summonses were also in connection with revelations about French arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The summonses raised fears over protections for journalists who shield anonymous sources and whistleblowers.

Disclose denounced the recent summons of their journalists and partners and said:

“The classified documents published by Disclose and its partners are of major public interest,” […]“Let’s be clear, this police investigation is an attack on the freedom of the press.”

On 13 May 2019 in a joint statement, 17 international and French humanitarian and human rights NGOs also denounced “threats to press freedom” after the journalists were summoned by the French intelligence services for investigating the presence of French weapons in the conflict in Yemen.

The group of concerned NGOs express solidarity with the targeted journalists and called on the French authorities - the Minister of the Interior, the Minister of the Armed Forces and the Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs to:

“[…]Stop intimidation against the press and to guarantee the confidentiality of sources.”

Association

The French legal CSO association Sherpa, which for almost 20 years has been fighting corruption and illicit financial flows by filing civil lawsuits, faces obstruction of its anti-corruption litigation work as authorities fail to renew accreditation to Sherpa.

Sherpa submitted an application to the Ministry of Justice requesting renewal of its accreditation in June 2018. However, the Ministry of Justice has not responded to Sherpa's application for approval, without which the association could no longer act as a civil party in the area of corruption. As the six month period required to obtain approval has passed, Sherpa interprets it as an implicit refusal. In March 2019, Sherpa filed an appeal against this implicit refusal to the Garde des Sceaux (Ministry of Justice).

Following the failure of the authorities to respond to the request for accreditation despite numerous reminders by Sherpa, the organisation initiated an online petition that raised over 5,500 signatures calling on the authorities to grant the approval.

Since 2014, only associations that have obtained specific approval from the Ministry of Justice are allowed to exercise the rights of civil parties in matters of corruption (article 2-23 of the Code of Criminal Procedure).