World, Europe

France: Security bill adopted, to media groups' dismay

As National Assembly passes comprehensive legislation, controversy looms over rights of expression

Cindi Cook   | 25.11.2020
France: Security bill adopted, to media groups' dismay


On Tuesday, France's lower house of the parliament voted in favor of a controversial global security bill, a new legislation which has raised intense criticism by those opposed to its limits on freedom of expression.

The bill, introduced by La Republique En Marche (LREM), was adopted by 288 to 104 votes with 66 abstentions. The Rassemblement National, a far-right party, voted in line with LREM while leftist parties opposed.

Within LREM's sister party, the Democratic Movement (MoDem), five members voted against and 18 members abstained. The bill now moves to the Senate in January for examination.

At the heart of the controversy is Article 24, which defends law enforcement by prohibiting anyone from taking photos of officers in the line of duty and disseminating those images online and in the press. Violators may face a year-long prison sentence and a €45,000 (€53,530) fine, according to the French daily Le Monde.

France has seen civil unrest in recent years, and subsequent objections to police brutality. As recently as Monday, officers used excessive force to clear a migrant encampment on Paris's Place de la Republique. The overly harsh action -- some migrants were seen beaten in footage aired on social media -- even provoked a robust reaction from Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin, who called it "shocking".

After intense debate, the bill's formulation has been met with street protests, held throughout France last weekend. Journalists demonstrated Saturday in Paris, Lille, Marseille, and Bordeaux.

On Wednesday, the powerful International Federation of Journalists voiced criticism of the bill, appealing for another demonstration.

"The draft law on global security, which threatens the dissemination of images of police officers in action, gathered a majority in the National Assembly yesterday. This law violates freedom of the press. We call for a demonstration on Nov. 28."

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) spoke out strongly on Wednesday as well in an article on their site -- then posted on Twitter -- entitled, "France tramples on press freedom." In it, the organization called the new bill "a blank check granted to the police to prevent journalists from fully reporting on the demonstrations," with EFJ's Secretary-General Ricardo Guttierez saying that last year "nearly 200 journalists were victims of violence and police intimidation in France."

"This year, rather than solving the problem, the French authorities give the impression of wanting to cover it up by prohibiting journalists from photographing or filming law enforcement officers in action in public space."

France's National Union of Journalists (SNJ) supported Wednesday's article by the EFJ, denouncing in it the restrictions on press freedom. In their own letter posted Monday on their website, the SNJ too called on supporters to join this Saturday's protest, dubbed the "March of Freedom".

On the legislature's part, Adrien Quatennens, an MP and member of the Left Party, voted the bill down.

"With my colleagues, I voted against the global security law which has just been adopted at first reading in the National Assembly.

"We [must] switch to something else. An authoritarian regime is taking hold. We must resist it and hold on to our principles," he said late Tuesday in a tweet.

Darmanin, who led the legislative discussion and works closely with the police, said the bill "in no way contravenes the freedom of the press and the freedom to inform," according to Le Monde.

The French press group Rebellious Discord has publicized recent unacceptable police action, such as at Monday's migrant camp clearing when a journalist for Spain's LaSexta TV had sexist comments hurled her way by police, who also pulled her hair. "Meanwhile, Macronists and Lepenists are voting side by side on the controversial 'global security bill'," Rebellious Discord voiced over Twitter.

France's lawmakers have pledged that the comprehensive bill will "protect those who protect us."

Prime Minister Jean Castex is set to hold talks with journalist unions this week, and will take the legislation to the Constitutional Council after it leaves the Senate, to ensure all constitutional rules and principles are verified.

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