France: Fact-finders reveal free media face new challenges in Macron era

by Jane Whyatt and Sophie Albers Ben Chamo

Bosses who wield great economical and political power because of a concentration of media ownership, verbal threats and physical attacks on journalists are just some of the problems uncovered by the ECPMF’s fact-finding mission to France.

French Media Private media ownership, police violence and hate speech are just some of the problems in French media (copyright ECPMF/ Jane Whyatt)

With a highly-experienced team of media freedom campaigners from partner organisations, the mission conducting interviews with more than 20 journalists as well as representatives of the trade unions and non-governmental organisations. Reporters sans Frontières, ECPMF member organisations Index on Censorship and the European Federation of Journalists joined the high-powered delegation.

They visited major newspaper groups “Les Echos” and “Le Monde” as well as smaller independent media such as The Bondy Blog and The fact finders were based in Paris but also carried out remote interviews with Rue89 in Bordeaux and Médiacoop in the rural Auvergne region of central France. The London-based Vice News TV crew who were injured and had their cameras smashed at a Paris demonstration also told their story via Skype. The president of the French Ethics Institute (ODI) Patrick Eveno gave a long interview, as did Nathalie Sonnac, a former journalist and board member of the broadcasting regulator, the Conseil Supérieur Audio-visuel. 

Structural problems of media ownership

Some long-standing probems were identified. Again and again in interviews, the dominance of a few multi-media owners whose main business interests are not in newspapers or TV but in their conglomerates was cited. The problem is that these owners are in a position to use their media to promote their other companies and their political friends. 

For example, “Le Figaro” is part of the Dassault group which also includes factories that build fighter planes and defence systems. Canal+ owner Vincent Bolloré has a business empire that includes the free newspaper “Direct Soir” as well as construction, oil, maritime freight and advertising firms that have made him one of the richest people in the world.

Verbal abuse and hate speech against journalists is another recurring theme in France. Death threats and rifle bullets were sent to journalists who published an investigation of presidential candidate Francois Fillon’s employment practices. And at the many demonstrations against the 2016 new labour law, on national days such as 1st May and Bastille Day, there were cases of journalists being beaten by riot police. Reporters sans Frontières has assembled a list of ten test cases - representing many more - and presented them to France’s ombudsman, the Défenseur des droits. Anti-terrorism laws introduced as part of the state of emergency and due to be made permanent are a further cause for concern.

Representing the journalists and media workers themselves, the three main trade unions SNJ, SNJ-CGT and CFDT-journalistes all answered questions from the international team. They agreed that journalism in France is a precarious profession with a growing lack of security and worsening of conditions because of new short-term contracts.

Hopeful signs – new independent media

On the positive side, the fact-finders heard evidence from independent investigative media such as Premières Lignes, an online news agency, and visited the Bondy Blog, based in a troubled suburb where young journalists from diverse backgrounds can receive training and support from Left-liberal newspaper “Libération”. The mission contacted EURACTIV, a multi-lingual news agency that was involved in the CrossCheck project, verifying news and exposing fakes during the 2017 election campaigns. SPARKNEWS is another example of a Paris-based journalistic project that aims to create a new approach to newsgathering by focussing on solutions rather than disasters or scandals.

With a wealth of evidence from all sections of the French media the fact-finders are compiling a report with a list of recommendations, to be published in September.

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