France: Petition demands reforms to media law after pre-election death threats

by Jane Whyatt

As French voters prepare to hit the polls, a petition is urging the next government to pass legal measures tackling the issue of press freedom. The campaign comes on the heels of politically-motivated death threats against journalists and magistrates.

Paris 900X600 The future of press freedom in France, of France itself and the EU project may depend on the results of the next French presidential election. (Photo: public domain)

The threatening notes were directed at two journalists and four magistrates investigating a court case against presidential candidate François Fillon. They contained bullets and the image of a coffin.

Reporters without Borders (RSF), which launched the petition, "firmly condemns the recent physical and verbal attacks on journalists, who must be free to do their job without any threats or constraints, especially during an election period." RSF's Pauline Adès-Mével adds:

"The death threats against several Mediapart, Canard Enchaîné and Journal du Dimanche journalists are grave and must be taken seriously. Such acts of intimidation are unacceptable in a democracy and have taken place in an atmosphere already contaminated by poisonous and dangerous statements by politicians against journalists."

A five-point programme for press freedom

"A few days ahead of the presidential election, as violence against journalists and attacks on media independence multiplies in our country, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is asking the future president to make firm commitments so that freedom and independence of information are guaranteed in France to the level of what can be expected in a great democracy."

The petition calls for:

  1. More transparency about who owns the media
  2. A new law to protect the identity of confidential sources
  3. Action to counter abusive court cases against journalists
  4. Making trafficking influence in the realm of information a crime
  5. Better and easier public access to official information

The next French presidential election takes place on 23 April. It is heating up amid corruption and nepotism allegations against Fillon, and the tight race between Front National candidate Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron from the En Marche! party. Le Pen has indicated she will push for France to exit the European Union ("Frexit") if elected.

RSF has intervened in the election campaign by posting photograhs of all the candidates and a five-point programme of reform for the next president to consider – whoever it may be. The campaign calls for greater access to information and transparency of media ownership concentration, as well as legal mechanisms against influence trafficking and abuses in ownership, prosecution of journalists and disclosure of sources.

Backed by a social media campaign with the hashtag #libertéégalitéinformés, the new petition has nearly reached its goal of 5,000 supporters. The hashtag is a modified version of "Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood", the slogan of the French revolutionaries who overthrew the monarchy in 1789. Now instead of brotherhood, they call for better informed citizens.

Mediapart, whose journalists suffered threats for doing their jobs, is among the campaign's supporters.

The case against Fillon

Journalists at the satirical weekly magazine Le Canard Enchaîné and the news website Mediapart were shocked to get the death threats at their editorial offices. The publications have reported the threats to the police.

All six people targeted are investigating the corruption case now hurting the chances that Fillon, from the conservative Les Républicains party, will become the next president of France. The candidate, who has held various ministerial posts in the French government over the years (including prime minister), is accused of misusing public funds to employ his wife and children, allegedly in "fake jobs".

Reporters Michel Deléan, Mathilde Mathieu and Ellen Salvi have been working on the dossier. The latest Mediapart story reports that Madame Fillon started receiving public funds from the National Assembly as early as 1982.

As the French presidential election campaign is underway, the court case has been covered by all the major French national newspapers and TV networks. Fillon himself claims this is a political smear campaign to damage his chances of success at the polls. He warned in an interview with France Inter radio that he would reveal all the people behind "the operation".

RSF are monitoring violence toward reporters and camera crews during the election campaign. They note that Fillon also makes speehes criticising the media for investigating his affairs, and that his supporter and fellow former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin urged the crowd at a pro-Fillon rally to boo and jeer at the press and media workers who were covering the event.

RSF's Adès-Mével tells the ECPMF:

This sickening and pernicious climate poses a danger to media freedom, especially when encouraged by senior politicians, who are thereby sending a barely veiled message that any member of the public can attack the media with impunity."

"Lying press"

Reporters Hugo Clément and Paul Larrouturou of the Quotidien daily news show on the TMC commercial TV network have been personally abused in campaign rallies by Fillon and Le Pen, respectively.

British reporter Gabriel Gatehouse, filming a documentary for the BBC about the far-right Le Pen, was amongst other journalists who were abused and intimidated by her supporters. They were chanting the German word "Lügenpresse" – "lying press".

This highly-offensive slogan, with its roots in Nazi anti-Semitism, is also used against reporters and camera crews in Germany.

ECPMF's Ana Ribeiro contributed to this report.

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Source information: This article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom –