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'Journalists are neither judges nor law enforcers'

Text by Aurélie BLONDEL

Latest update : 2010-04-03

While doing research for a story, a journalist communicated with several paedophiles, and then turned them in. The result was roughly twenty arrests, as well as a controversy surrounding the role of journalists and the protection of their sources.

For journalist Laurent Richard, it was merely “his duty as a citizen”: after communicating with paedophiles as part of the research for a TV segment he was doing, he turned them in. To Richard, it seemed “normal” to alert the police.

His segment, entitled “Paedophiles: The Predators”, will be broadcast on April 6 on French TV channel France 2. When some of the paedophiles Richard was interviewing for the story showed him photos of children they were planning to molest, the journalist contacted the police. Roughly twenty people were arrested. Ever since, a controversy has been brewing about the role of journalists and the protection of their sources. Was Laurent Richard obliged to report these people? Beyond any moral imperative, what does French law say? France24.com spoke to Basile Ader, a Paris lawyer who specialises in press laws.

Is every citizen legally obliged to turn in paedophiles?

Basile Ader: Anyone who witnesses a crime such as murder or rape is obliged to report it. This is not the case if you witness theft. There's another situation in which turning in the perpetrator is an obligation: if you know that a minor who is under 15 years of age has been abused. If you don’t report it, you could end up with three years in prison and a fine.

In the case we’re talking about, the legal obligation is not clear: the journalist turned in paedophiles who, according to him, were going to be guilty of abusing children.

How far does a journalist’s right to protect his or her sources go?

B.A.: If you’ve acquired information for professional purposes, you have a legal right to keep quiet, to protect your sources (but it’s not an obligation). A law passed on January 4, 2010, reformulated this very principle of confidential sources.

The law states that this right can be upheld, unless there is “an imperative stemming from public interest”. For example, if you know that a terrorist attack is going to occur, you have to alert the authorities.

Was there “an imperative stemming from public interest” in this particular case? It’s difficult to say, because the law is so recent. It’s up to a judge to interpret. In any case, no judge will have to decide on this case.

What do journalistic ethics advise in such cases?

B. A.: Remember that different texts on journalistic ethics are not the be-all-end-all. Moreover, what’s repeated in the texts is that it’s important to avoid confusion: journalists are neither judges nor law enforcers.

If journalists constantly turned in their sources, freedom of the press would be at risk; distrustful sources would no longer dare confide in journalists.

Date created : 2010-04-03

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