President Emmanuel Macron faced accusations of double standards on Friday as he launched plans for a government crackdown on press freedoms in France while styling himself as a paragon of free expression abroad.
After the gruesome beheading last month of Samuel Paty, a high-school teacher who showed caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad to students, Mr Macron insisted that defending free expression was an essential French value.
“I will always defend in my country the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw,” he told Al Jazeera at the time.
Yet French journalists and rights advocates are up in arms over a new security law they say severely restricts their freedom to report by imposing a quasi-ban on filming or releasing footage of police.
Under the global security bill debated in parliament this week, offenders face up to €45,000 (£40,000) and a one-year prison term for “disseminating by any means or medium whatsoever … the image of the face or any other identifying element of an officer … when engaged in a police operation”.
The government insisted the clause would “protect those who protect us”, but detractors have warned the new legislation risks curbing press freedoms and muzzling attempts to shine a light on police brutality.
On Tuesday, police arrested a journalist from France 3, a regional TV channel, during a protest against the law outside the National Assembly. He was detained for filming the demonstration, even though he had shown officers his media credentials, according to a statement from the channel’s director.
Quizzed over the arrest the following day, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said the journalist had not informed the police of his presence prior to the protest. “I would therefore remind you that if journalists cover demonstrations, in accordance with the law enforcement plan, they must approach the authorities,” he said.
He later toned that down, saying there was no such obligation, but the incident triggered outrage among French media outlets, with Le Monde saying in an editorial that the law “grossly violates a democratic right”.
With France’s rights ombudsman and even some Macron MPs calling to scrap the controversial “clause 24”, Mr Darmanin’s office on Friday said the law would be amended to make it clear that journalists were exempted from the filming ban by adding the words “without prejudicing the right to inform”.
“Yes, journalists and citizens can continue filming and broadcasting ‘without harmful intent’,” insisted Jean-Michel Fauvergue, an MP from Mr Macron’s LREM party who co-wrote the draft law.
Yet some have said the clause has undermined Mr Macron’s drive to style himself as a champion of press freedom.
Olivier Faure, head of the opposition Socialists, said: “Emmanuel Macron styled himself as a rampart against a drift toward repression. He has become its promoter.”
“His solitary and opaque governance, his desire to weaken all counterweights – parliament, press, unions – is taking democracy in a very worrying direction.”
Dov Alfon, the editor of Libération newspaper, wrote: “Even if the fight against Islamist terrorism requires adjustments, it doesn’t justify abandoning the very principles of our democracy.”