France’s press freedom record continued a downward slide, in large part because authorities attempted to violate the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and interfere with editorial decisions. Most of the recent cases stemmed from the “Bettencourt affair,” the alleged illegal financing of the presidential party by the billionaire Liliane Bettencourt. In 2010, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office ordered the secret services to identify sources leaking information about the matter to the press. Journalists from major media outlets were targeted, and the secret services obtained phone records of a Le Monde journalist. In October, the director of domestic intelligence was charged with violating the secrecy of correspondence and confidentiality of sources. Press-government relations were further strained during the 18-month abduction of two France 3 journalists in Afghanistan, which ended in June. Élysée Palace and the army had criticized the “recklessness” of the reporters. In November, the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed and its website was hacked after the satirical weekly published a spoof edition “guest-edited” by Prophet Muhammad.
Stéphane Taponier and Hervé Ghesquière, two journalists with the French public service channel France 3, were freed on June 29, 2011, after being held by the Taliban in the Kapisa region of Afghanistan since late 2009. Three Afghan colleagues were also released.
In September 2010, Le Monde announced it was filing lawsuits alleging that the Sarkozy government unlawfully used the country's intelligence services to identify a source for journalist Gérard Davet, who had been covering the Bettencourt affair. An appellate court ruled in favor of Le Monde in December 2011.
Le Monde v. the French government:
June 2010: The news website Mediapart began publishing secretly taped conversations between L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and her financial advisers, revealing allegations of illegal political financing and tax evasion. Le Monde and other news media picked up the story.
September 2010: Le Monde said the domestic intelligence service used surveillance to identify a justice ministry official as Le Monde’s alleged source for the Bettencourt affair. The paper filed a formal lawsuit a month later.
October 2010: Burglars stole a computer and a GPS device from the Paris apartment of Davet, Le Monde’s editor for investigations.
September 2011: French Interior Minister Claude Guéant admitted that domestic intelligence spied on Davet in July 2010, obtaining his detailed phone bill from a mobile operator in order to identify a Le Monde source.
October 2011: Bernard Squarcini, head of domestic intelligence, was charged with “illegally collecting data and violating the confidentiality” of Davet’s sources.
December 2011: The country's top appeals court ruled in favor of Le Monde.
In late 2011, Investigating Magistrate Sylvie Zimmerman was questioning Bernard Squarcini, head of domestic intelligence; Philippe Courroye, a state prosecutor; and Fréderic Péchenard, France's chief of police, as part of an inquiry into the illegal surveillance of Le Monde's Davet. Squarcini was charged on October 17.
Worldwide victories for source protection:
August 2007: After journalist protests in Nairobi, President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya rejected a bill that would have forced editors to name their sources in court.
March 2009: The Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague confirmed the right of Liberian journalist Hassan Bility to maintain the confidentiality of a source from a reporting trip to Sierra Leone. During the trip, Bility documented alleged ties between Liberian government troops and Sierra Leonean rebels.
September 2010: The European Court of Human Rights held that media premises are exempt from police searches and seizures. The decision stemmed from a case in the Netherlands, where police had threatened to arrest an editor and close his newspaper if he refused to surrender journalistic material.
July 2011: A U.S. federal judge in Alexandria, Va., ruled that reporter James Risen could keep confidential his source for sensitive material in a book about the CIA. The government appealed the decision in late year.
September 2011: London's Metropolitan Police dropped their attempt to use the Official Secrets Act to force The Guardian to reveal confidential sources on a phone-hacking scandal.
In November 2010, the satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné and the news website Mediapart accused Sarkozy’s office of directly supervising espionage against journalists covering the Bettencourt affair. Sarkozy’s chief of staff and the head of domestic intelligence sued the two outlets for defamation in late 2010. By June 2011, as the government’s own actions came under fire, the complaints were withdrawn.
Other legal attacks on French media:
November 2008: Paris police detained and abused Vittorio de Filippis, a former editor of the newspaper Liberation. Police interrogated him for five hours without a lawyer in a 2006 libel case and forced him to undergo strip searches.
June 2010: A Paris prosecutor indicted Augustin Scalbert, a journalist with the news website Rue89, on charges of “stealing and keeping” a video that showed Sarkozy reprimanding public television journalists for not giving him enough airtime. Rue89 had published the video two years earlier. Scalbert faced up to five years in jail. The case was pending in late 2011.
July 2011: Rue89 prevailed in a defamation lawsuit filed by Lola Karimova, daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. The outlet had called the Uzbek leader “a dictator” in a 2010 article. Karimova had demanded 30,000 euros (US$41,500) in damages.
Do you believe the free flow of information must be protected? Sign the #RightToReport petition and demand that President Obama immediately:
1. Issue a presidential policy directive prohibiting the hacking and surveillance of journalists and media organizations.
2. Limit aggressive prosecutions that ensnare journalists and intimidate whistleblowers.
3. Prevent the harassment of journalists at the U.S. border.
Or click here to see the full petition, and join leading journalists like Christiane Amanpour, The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the AP Kathleen Carroll, and Arianna Huffington in signing on.