French MPs on Tuesday debated controversial legislation that would severely restrict publishing footage of police in action – a move that critics warn will muzzle press freedoms and complaints of police brutality.
The measure would make it a new criminal offence “to disseminate, by whatever means and on whatever media, with the intent of causing physical or psychological harm, an image of the face or any other element that could identify a police officer.”
Offenders face up to a year in prison and a €45,000 (£40,000) fine under clause 24 of the proposed “global security” bill, which is backed by President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party.
France’s tough-talking interior minister Gerald Darmanin said it would “protect those who are protecting us,” especially in high-tension banlieues, or deprived suburbs, ringing major French cities.
An attack on a police station outside Paris last month by scores of assailants armed with fireworks and steel bars prompted the government to vow tougher measures to protect officers.
The law’s co-author Jean-Michel Fauvergue, a former head of France’s elite RAID police unit, called the curbs on police images a response to a “war of images” that “the authorities, and the state in particular, are losing”.
Speaking last week, he said it was needed because officers “are constantly threatened in their personal life” after being identified and because there are “calls for female officers to be raped.”
Mr Darminin has denied it would infringe on reporting, saying journalists would “obviously still be able to film any police intervention”.
But France’s human rights ombudsman, Claire Hedon, said the bill posed “significant risks of undermining fundamental rights,” including press freedom.
“The publication of images relating to police interventions are legitimate and necessary” in a democracy, she said.
Journalists’ unions and rights campaigners called for protests Tuesday in front of the National Assembly.
They warn the legislation is similar to a “gag law” in force in Spain since 2015, which could lead to self-censorship when dealing with police images.
Critics warn that the bill risked enforcing “massive” self-censorship and argue that images posted online help expose police blunders and brutality.
Legal experts also say it will be difficult to determine whether images are posted with “intent to harm”.
French police are often accused of being heavy-handed. Hundreds of violence complaints were filed against officers during the “yellow vest” anti-government rallies that erupted in 2018.
In July, three officers were charged with manslaughter over the death of a delivery man, Cedric Chouviat, who was filmed by bystanders as officers had him in a chokehold after his arrest for a traffic offence near the Eiffel Tower.
Mr Chouviat cried “I’m suffocating” seven times before his body went limp, in a similar scenario to the “I can’t breathe” uttered by George Floyd, the black American who also died after being pinned to the ground last May, sparking the Black Lives Matter movement.
The National Assembly is due to vote next week on the bill, which will then go to the Senate.