The police have been interviewing journalists recently. Eight of them to be precise, with Ariane Chemin of the daily paper Le Monde the latest to face questioning.
France prides itself on its free and independent press. But this series of interviews has provoked a worried reaction from Reporters Without Borders. Christophe Deloire, secretary general of the non-governmental journalist rights organisation, says bluntly, that “investigative reporting is in danger in France, because it is under attack and is threatened with legal action.”
So. What exactly is going on? And why?
Ariane Chemin is a senior reporter at Le Monde. She was the journalist behind the story revealing that presidential bodyguard Alexandre Benalla had beaten up a protester while disguised as a police officer.
Benalla has since been sacked, and the scandal in which the presidential team was accused of attempting to cover up the affair has done nothing for Emmanuel Macron’s popularity ratings.
The summonses have created a certain disquiet in French media circles about journalistic independence and freedom of expression, especially as they follow police orders against four reporters from the investigative website, Disclose, after they reported on leaked military intelligence about how French weapons sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE were being used in Yemen.
According to Christophe Deloire, “it is to be feared that, with these summonses, the authorities are trying to intimidate journalists and identify their sources so as to punish or dissuade them.”
The law is notoriously unclear
There is a legal basis for each of the two cases, involving Benalla and the Yemen.
In her article on the Benalla affair, Ariane Chemin revealed that one Chokri Wakrim was a member of the special forces, breaking a 2016 law . . . article 413-14 of the Penal Code . . . which has never before been enforced. It is, nonetheless, illegal to identify any person who is or has been a member of such a unit.
Apart from his colourful past, Chokri Wakrim is also the partner of Elodie Poitout, former head of security at the Prime Minister’s office. Elodie has since been sacked following media revelations that she and Chokri had welcomed Alexandre Benalla to their home, in the midst of the scandal. Incidentally, Chokri has since become an accountant.
In the Yemen arms case, involving journalists from the site Disclose, the police allege that they based their reports on classified military information, and that’s also a criminal act, covered by article 413-9 of the same Penal Code.
The police would obviously love to know who fingered Chokri and who supplied the classified files. Hence the pressure on the journalists.
The law is notoriously unclear because based on the vague concept of the “public interest,” in which interest journalists are supposed to work. But no one is sure how far that allows them to go in the revelation of the identities of special state agents or of military secrets.
Piling on police pressure
Nobody for a moment thinks that the eight reporters who have been interviewed are going to name names. They have a constitutional right as well as a professional obligation to protect their sources.
But the pressure sends out a message which, according to legal specialist Renaud Le Gunehec, interviewed by Le Monde, has been steadily building over the past decade. Journalists who make a habit of poking their noses into police and judicial affairs are more likely than their colleagues to be called in for a little talk.
The potential penalties are serious. Ariane Chemin could be fined €5,000 and go to jail for five years; the Disclose reporters are facing €75,000 and seven years behind bars.
But Le Monde says they’ll probably get off with a warning. If only because a public trial involving journalists could turn out to be worse than embarrassing for the authorities.
France is currently rated 32nd of the 180 countries in the global press freedom rankings published annually by Reporters Without Borders.