French lawmakers passed a bill on Tuesday that critics say could make it harder for journalists and human rights advocates to hold police accountable.
The Global Security Bill’s most controversial section — Article 24 — which was approved by lawmakers on Friday, forbids the publication of images that allow the identification of a law enforcement officer “with the intent to cause them harm, physically or mentally.”
The bill — which has been the subject of much criticism and several protests — was amended by the government, lawmakers say, to ensure the freedom of the press.
Now that the bill has been passed by the National Assembly, it will head to the Senate in December.
In a statement before Tuesday’s vote, Prime Minister Jean Castex’s office said the new law should not “prejudice the legitimate interest of the public to be informed.”
But the amendment was not enough for Claire Hedon, a veteran journalist appointed earlier this year as France’s Defender of Human Rights.
Speaking on French television just after the vote on Article 24, Hedon called the amendment a step in the right direction but warned that “in our legislative arsenal, there already exists the possibility to punish anyone who uses, in an ill-intentioned way, the videos that they publish.”
On Saturday, there were more protests against the bill with an estimated 22,000 people taking part in marches across France. In Paris the crowds included representatives of the media, along with some gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protesters and members of Extinction Rebellion.
‘Worrying message to send’
Overall, the Global Security Bill would expand the ability of security forces to film ordinary citizens without their consent through police bodycams and drones, while restricting the publication of photos or videos of police officers’ faces.
Amnesty International says that if the bill becomes law in its current form, France — one of the first countries in the world to proclaim the concept of universal human rights — will become an exception among democracies.
“If people cannot film anything in the streets when the police may sometimes have an illegal use of force it’s a very worrying message to send,” according to Cecile Coudriou, president of Amnesty International France.
“On one hand, citizens are asked to accept the possibility of being filmed under the pretext that they have nothing to fear if they have done nothing wrong. And at the same time the police refuse to be filmed, which is a right in every democracy in the world.”
The bill’s defenders say it is necessary after police officers were singled out and harassed on social media during the gilets jaunes protests of 2018 and 2019. They also say nothing in the bill stops journalists from doing their job, since prosecution would depend on the need to show an “intent to cause harm.”
But Reporters Without Borders says this provision is too vague. “Intent is a concept that is open to interpretation and hard to determine,” the organization said in a statement.
“Any photos or video showing identifiable police officers that are published or broadcast by critical media outlets or are accompanied by critical comments could find themselves being accused of seeking to harm these police officers,” the group said.
In parliament, the bill is being pushed by two lawmakers from President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche party. One of them, Jean-Michel Fauvergue, the former head of the police anti-terrorism unit, told parliament this week: “Article 24 aims to ban their exposure and their harassment on social networks, by malicious and dangerous individuals. No worries: Journalists will still be able to do their job.”
The bill’s other co-sponsor Alice Thourot, told CNN: “The broadcasting and capturing of images, whether with a camera or by citizens on a phone, of policemen doing their job with their faces exposed will be still be possible. What will change is that any calls for violence or incitement of hatred that accompany such pictures will be sanctioned by the law.”
Police batons and tear gas
And there are fears that the proposed law has already emboldened police during protests.
Last Tuesday, as the debate inside the National Assembly began, protesters converged on the building to demonstrate against Article 24. Thirty-three protesters were taken in for questioning, mainly on the grounds of having failed to disperse when ordered to by police.
Among them was a France Television journalist detained overnight before being released the following afternoon without charge. France Television, the country’s main public broadcaster, put out a statement condemning what it called the “abusive and arbitrary arrest of a journalist who was doing his job.”
At a press conference on Wednesday, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin was asked about the police response to the protests, and video of one journalist who claims police threatened him with arrest even though he’d shown his press card.
“The journalist did not approach the police ahead of the protest — as some of his colleagues did — in order to be allowed to cover it,” said Darmanin. Nothing in French law requires journalists to seek the permission of the police before covering a protest.
On Monday night, the interior minister himself responded shortly after the dismantling of a migrant camp in Paris, saying that some of the images had been shocking.
Images and video posted online showed what appeared to be police chasing people down streets and striking journalists with both police batons and tear gas. Darmanin tweeted that he had demanded a detailed report on the incident, adding: “I will take decisions as soon as I receive it.”
Incitement of hatred
But beyond the work of journalists, there are also fears about what the bill means for members of the public and what they might capture on their phones.
As Coudriou explains, “there have been so many cases of police brutality recently in France exposed precisely through the sorts of things that would now become illegal. Amnesty International has used a lot of these videos, after verifying their authenticity. They show how some police brutality could occur despite a constant strategy of denial.”
Earlier this year Cédric Chouviat, a 42-year-old father of five of North African heritage, died shortly after being stopped by police near the Eiffel Tower. During the stop, filmed by several passing motorists, Chouviat was pinned down by three police officers; he died in a hospital two days later, and his autopsy revealed a broken larynx, according to the prosecutor in the case.
After several months and an initial denial of any impropriety on the part of the police, the amateur footage in part led to the opening of a criminal investigation into the actions of the officers involved. Three officers now face charges of manslaughter. All of them deny any wrongdoing
“It would be saying, after George Floyd, we’re not going to allow the filming of police,” according to David Dufresne, who says his recent film about police brutality, “The Monopoly of Violence,” simply couldn’t have been made if the global security bill were law.
“In France we have a similar case: Cédric Chouviat,” Dufresne told CNN. “The people who pass and see that there is a police check that looks like it’s going badly. None of them know what happens next which is the death of this man. When they start filming it is because they understand that they must.”