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France16 April 2007

Presidential candidates answer our questions about press freedom in France

French presidential candidates François Bayrou (centrist), Marie-George Buffet (communist), Ségolène Royal (socialist), Nicolas Sarkozy (conservative), Gérard Schivardi (anti-Europe) and Dominique Voynet (ecologist) responded in writing to questions from Reporters Without Borders in mid-March, asking them to take a firm stand for better protection of media and Internet freedom and news diversity.

Reporters Without Borders has also launched a campaign to inform French people of the press freedom situation in their own country. It features a poster showing a woman symbolising France with a swollen and bloodied face and the caption “Really, she asked for it.” The campaign posters, which were put up in Paris on 16 April, mention the poor ranking of France (35th out of 168 countries) in the latest Reporters Without Borders worldwide press freedom index.

Questions to the candidates and their answers

The right to keep journalistic sources secret
If you are elected president, will you push for inclusion of this right in the 1881 press law for all those involved in informing the public? Will you extend to journalists’ homes the restrictions applying to the search of media offices.
All the candidates favoured strengthening the right to secrecy (already guaranteed in article 109 of the code of criminal procedure) and its inclusion in the 1881 law. They also said the search restrictions (“presence of a judge to ensure the search does not undermine journalistic freedom” - article 56-2 of the code) should be extended to journalists’ homes.

Concealing violation of legal secrecy rules
Will you publicly oppose using this accusation to prosecute journalists?
Bayrou said article 11 of the criminal procedure code only mentioned “those who assisted” in this and not specifically journalists. Sarkozy said the balance between the basic principles of freedom of information and presumption of innocence was “not satisfactory” and suggested “strengthening or adding to” various existing codes of conduct. Royal noted that the current use by courts of the notion of concealment had been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights and pledged to amend the law to prevent improper use of it against the media. Buffet said investigative journalism had to be protected.

Using photos of a person without permission
Do you favour amending article 226-1 of the criminal code to allow punishment more proportionate to the harm done to a person and seeking a way to end the flood of civil complaints about unauthorised use of photos?
Sarkozy said the current situation was “not entirely satisfactory” and that legal action to regulate the use of photos should be tied to evidence that it was deliberate and caused genuine harm. Bayrou said civil law should guarantee the dignity of the individual “without the excessive punishment that unfortunately involves many areas and is another sign of government suspicion of journalists." Royal said that before amending article 226-1, “broad discussions” should be held with journalists to find a new legally-guaranteed balance between protection of privacy, the right to use photos and normal journalistic working conditions. Buffet favoured repealing the law on presumption of innocence.

Narrow media ownership and news diversity
What is your position on narrow ownership of the media and what would you do to guarantee editorial independence and news diversity? Do you favour banning companies that heavily depend on government contracts from having majority (or a blocking minority) control in general news media?
Bayrou proposed that firms depending on the government for more than a fifth of their business be banned from holding or controlling more than 3% of the shares or voting rights in a media outlet. Royal said she wanted to encourage monitoring to ensure genuine news diversity that could be based on certain standards. Sarkozy said the present situation was “largely satisfactory,” though adjustments could be made, and said he was interested in some of the recommendations made in a 2005 report by former Constitutional Court member Alain Lancelot.

Buffet called for a law against narrow ownership and a ban on firms doing business with the government from owning media outlets. She advocated a return to the spirit of the World War II National Resistance Council’s programme to keep news media away from the influence of big money. Voynet also called for a ban on industrial and financial holding companies doing business with the state from controlling media groups and networks.

Voynet and Royal favoured changing the way members of the CSA national broadcasting council are appointed, so as to boost its independence from the government. Bayrou proposed extending the council’s powers to cover diversity of the written media. Voynet called for abolition of advertising on publicly-owned TV stations and for a tax to make up for loss of the revenue that would switch to commercial stations because of the abolition.

New press offences and “history” laws
Will you promise not to create new press offences and “history” laws that could damage freedom of expression?
Royal said press freedom had to be preserved but denial of the fact of genocides “must not be tolerated.” Sarkozy said he approved of existing laws, which were a bastion against hatred of other people, and did not think it was the job of politicians to override historians. Bayrou called for counterbalances to state power that were independent and said adding “history” laws to new press offences would undermine freedom of expression. Buffet said she agreed with punishing racism, anti-semitism and attacks on sexual orientation and handicapped people, but preferred to let the media regulate themselves in all other areas. Schivardi said he was against any new press offences and also challenges to measures that stemmed from the 1990 anti-racism law.

Standards for online media
Will you revive discussion about the tricky matter of online standards? Will you oppose setting up a standards commission for online content if its powers, operation and membership are not more clearly spelled out?
Royal and Bayrou said the proposal for a standards commission for Internet service providers gave too many powers to the commission and were insufficiently defined. They called for a public debate on the issue which involved freedom of expression and the responsibility of Internet users. Sarkozy favoured the “widest possible” consultations. Voynet opposed a commission since its aim was not protecting children but controlling content as the Chinese government did. Buffet said she agreed with trade unions in opposing a commission and said the journalists own code of conduct was sufficient.

Distribution of violent images by bloggers and the battle against "happy slapping" (filming physical attacks and posting them online)
Will you review the February 2007 anti-delinquency law to prevent its unjustified use that might undermine the free flow on information online?
Royal said it was a “typically botched” law, hastily drawn up to show firmness. Though concerned about the spread of ’happy slapping,’ she said this part of the law should be amended if, as many lawyers thought, it prevented non-journalists from distributing videos and photos of violence (sometimes by police) against people. Sarkozy said the law did not intend to undermine freedom of information, but if there was the slightest doubt, the law should be clarified. Buffet favoured amending the law because although ‘happy slapping’ should be punished, distribution of other images, including by amateurs, should not be banned, especially if they were accurate.

Responsibility of Internet firms
Will you ask French firms to adopt a voluntary code of conduct, as proposed by the European Parliament, and publicly call on new-technology firms to take ethical positions when they operate in countries that abuse freedom of expression?
Sarkozy said that "nothing, and certainly not profits, justifies closing our eyes to the frequent attacks on basic freedoms around the world.” Royal said she backed the European Parliament’s Internet freedom resolution of July last year and that adopting a volontary code of conduct limiting the activity of firms in repressive countries would be “a first step.” Bayrou noted that his friends in the European Parliament had been responsible for the resolution and that he would apply it. Voynet also said she would ask French firms to adopt a volontary code of conduct and favoured getting NT firms to make moral commitments when working in repressive countries. She said that, like many other human rights activists, she believed such regimes were strengthened by the weak attitude taken towards them by Western countries and firms.

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