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France30 January 2002

Tapping of journalists’ phones


Reporters Without Borders (RSF) deplores the increase in recent months of decisions and practices by French legal authorities that seriously undermine the right to freely publish information. RSF’s stand follows revelations by the French daily Le Monde on 30 January that six journalists’ phones were tapped in 2000 and 2001 as part of an investigation by the French National Anti-Terrorist Service (DNAT) into events in Corsica.

RSF is concerned by the number of encroachments on freedom of information by legal decisions during 2001. The fact that about 15 journalists were held for questioning, charged or convicted (or whose convictions were upheld on appeal) that year shows how readily legal officials resort to measures to force journalists to reveal their information to the authorities first and also to punish any press disclosure of material considered "secret" in sensitive scandals, especially those concerning political-financial abuses and Corsica.

The alleged telephone surveillance of Jean-Pierre Rey, a journalist with the Gamma agency, Michèle Fines, a senior editor with the TV station France 2, Delphine Byrka, a journalist with Paris-Match, Roger Auque, a freelance journalist working for Figaro Magazine and the TV station TF1, Jean-Michel Verne, of France-Soir and Le Figaro, and Guy Benhamou, a freelance journalist, is a new violation of a journalist’s right not to reveal sources.

Rey was also held for questioning for nearly four days by the DNAT in September 2001. The law of 15 June 2000 says a person cannot be detained this way unless there are "reasons to assume they have committed or tried to commit an offence." The five journalists held for questioning at various times since 1 January 2000 have denounced what they call a form of pressure aimed at forcing them to disclose information covered by the right not to reveal sources. RSF has urged French justice minister Marylise Lebranchu to amend the rules of criminal law procedure (article 109, paragraph 2) to better protect journalists’ rights not to reveal the sources of information gathered in the course of their work.

French courts are still giving priority to the confidentiality of the preliminary examination of a case, and to the principle of presumed innocence, over journalists’ rights to seek out and freely publish information. This persistently contradicts rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, which usually gives priority to journalists’ rights on grounds that "safeguarding press freedom is in the interests of a democratic society."

This practice of French courts saw journalists charged or convicted of defamation in 2001 on account of articles investigating matters of public interest, such as scandals about contaminated blood transfusions and illegal arms sales to Angola. They were accused of "jeopardising the presumption of innocence" under the 15 June 2000 law, for example by publishing a photo of former Elf oil company chief Alfred Sirven in the Santé prison in Paris. Also of "violating the right to privacy," a new offence applied to the press photographers who were cleared in 1999 in the accidental death of Britain’s Princess Diana the year before.

The French Supreme Court meanwhile endorsed a new crime for journalists of "being in possession of a breach of the confidentiality of a preliminary legal investigation" when it upheld the conviction for this reason of a group of journalists who revealed documents from an enquiry into the scandal of phone tapping ordered by the French presidency. Journalists are not legally bound by this confidentiality, as are judges, police and court clerks, or by professional secrecy, as are lawyers. So the offence of "possessing" breaches of these kinds of confidentiality emerged with the political-financial scandals of the 1990s and has since been regularly used by courts.

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