The French Constitutional Council has, according to the IDG News Service, “approved a law that criminalizes the filming or broadcasting of acts of violence by people other than professional journalists. The law could lead to the imprisonment of eyewitnesses who film acts of police violence, or operators of Web sites publishing the images, one French civil liberties group warned on Tuesday.”
Pascal Cohet, spokesperson for the French Civil Liberties group Odebi which has been gathering reports about the law from around the world, points out that under the law, George Holliday, who recorded LA Police beating Rodney King, could have been sentenced to up to 5 years in prison and fined €75,000 (USD $98,537).
The law was proposed by Minister of the Interior and Presidential Candidate Nicolas Sarkozy and was, according to the IDG report, intended to clamp down on a wide range of public order offenses, including “happy slapping”. Campaigners, however, worry that the law was intentionally written in such a way that allows broad interpretation that effectively outlaws the efforts of citizen journalists to photograph and film violent acts, including police brutality.
The French Government has also reportedly proposed “a certification system for Web sites, blog hosters, mobile-phone operators and Internet service providers, identifying them as government-approved sources of information if they adhere to certain rules. The journalists’ organization Reporters Without Borders, which campaigns for a free press, has warned that such a system could lead to excessive self censorship as organizations worried about losing their certification suppress certain stories.”
Nicolas Sarkozy, regular readers of this blog will recall, is the right wing French politician who caused quite a stir by turning up to address Le Web 3 after being invited by Loic Le Meur, one of France’s most widely read bloggers who has endorsed Sarkozy’s candidacy. Le Meur, a serial entrepreneur, supports Sarkozy in part because he feels that Sarkozy is the candidate most likely to help bring new opportunities to the French software and technology industries by supporting start-ups and venture capital investment in them. Sarkozy has, in the past, also been supportive of journalism.
It’s quite difficult to understand why Sarkozy would propose a law that seems to go against both the internet publishing/tech community he’s been courting as well as journalists.
Citizen journalists and bloggers can’t, of course, ignore the existence of libel law, contempt and other restraints that are placed upon what they can and can’t publish online. Indeed, The Press Gazette reported last December that violation of such laws (as well as repression) on the internet accounted for “one in three jailed journalists”. It’s important that bloggers understand both their rights and their legal responsibilities and there are a growing number of resources, including this one from NewAssignment.net, offering explanations of these.
The good news is that in some places, for example California, courts are beginning to recognise that bloggers and citizen journalists should have the same legal protection as journalists. The bad news is that, in most jurisdictions, such recognition is probably still a long way away.
Existing organisations created by and for bloggers, such as the Media Bloggers Association, tend to be more about cross-promotion and don’t get the same respect or recognition from governments that more mainstream journalism bodies receive.
The way forward, if bloggers and citizen journalists want to work together to ensure their recognition and rights, is to begin speaking with existing journalism industry trade bodies and unions, for example the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in the UK or the Online News Association internationally. Seeing that more and more bloggers are doing journalism, and more and more journalists are becoming bloggers, they may very well be willing to take bloggers on as fully fledged, card carrying members and/or to set up branches specifically for bloggers.
Once onboard with the trade unions, bloggers could join professional journalists, free speech and civil rights campaigners, mainstream media organisations and other interested parties to form a united front in fight against laws like this one in France and elsewhere.
[Update: BBC News Online is now reporting on the proposed French law]