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France25 April 2003

Perben Bill "threatens confidentiality of journalists’ sources"

Reporters Without Borders today expressed deep concern about a proposed French law it said would endanger the right of journalists not to reveal their sources of information. The measure supplements legislation presented by interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy boosting the government’s internal security powers and giving it new means to obtain information.

"This bill is another blow to the confidentiality of journalists’ sources," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard in a letter to justice minister Dominique Perben. "Even if searches of media premises are still to be conducted under special rules, the measure is a new threat because journalists need only be considered ’likely’ to have relevant information for them to be asked by a prosecutor or judge to divulge it. If they refuse, they can be fined. As we have said repeatedly, journalists are not to be treated as assistants to the police or the courts."

Perben presented a bill to the cabinet on 9 April officially "adapting the law to changes in criminal behaviour." Its articles 28 and 49 say an examining magistrate, state prosecutor or police detective "can require any person or private or public company or institution likely to have material or information of interest to an investigation, including data in personal files, to hand it over or disclose it, without pleading exemption on grounds of professional secrecy." Refusal could incur a fine of 3,750 euros.

The law currently only allows searches of media premises to be done by a judge, but Reporters Without Borders has always condemned the fact that a journalist’s home is not protected in this way and can be searched by an ordinary police detective. The Perben Bill aggravates this situation and poses an even greater threat to investigative journalism and independent journalists.

Journalists are not at present legally bound by professional confidentiality, as doctors and lawyers are. But they can conceal the identity of informants when they give court evidence (article 109-2 of the code of legal procedure).

The new proposal reduces the right of journalists not to reveal their sources. The European Court of Human Rights has however supported this right (The Goodwin decision, 27 March 1996) as one of the "corner-stones" of press freedom and said that "without such protection, sources may be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest" and that "as a result, the vital public watchdog role of the press may be undermined."




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