French parliament splits on journalism bill

The French parliament is debating a controversial bill that recognizes a journalist's right to protect sources while suggesting these may have to be revealed in special cases. The legislation has sparked outrage among journalists' unions.


The French government on Thursday introduced a bill that recognizes a journalist's right to protect sources while stating there may be special cases when reporters will have to name names.

The new legislation has been fiercely criticized by journalists' unions and press watchdogs for stating that reporters may have to reveal sources when "a pressing imperative requires it", wording seen as too vague.

"I believe that the confidentiality of sources can be lifted in certain very well-defined conditions. It cannot be absolute," Justice Minister Rachida Dati told parliament after presenting the bill.

Dati said cases involving terrorism or the kidnapping of a child may qualify under the law as instances when journalists in France may have to reveal sources.

"A newspaper receives a letter from a kidnapper. He threatens to kill the child in 48 hours unless ransom is paid. The investigators have no leads.  It is urgent to act to save the life of the child," Dati explained.

"The journalist invokes the confidentiality of his sources. Can we take the risk of allowing a child to be killed?" Dati said. "In this context, we must break the confidentiality."

She argued the new legislation promised by President Nicolas Sarkozy during his election campaign last year struck a balance between the rights of journalists and the needs of police and other law enforcement agencies.

But four unions representing journalists have come out against the bill, saying that the term "pressing imperative" left the door open to broad interpretation.

The bill came after a journalist for Le Monde, Guillaume Dasquie, was accused in December of "compromising national defence intelligence" when he wrote an article quoting classified reports that French intelligence services knew of some Al-Qaeda plans before the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Dasquie has refused to name the person who gave him the information.

Former journalist and Green deputy Noel Mamere said the bill "undermines the right to confidentiality" and "weakens an essential democratic principle."

Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders) has criticised the bill, saying in a statement that the restrictions placed on the confidentiality of sources were not "sufficiently cleary formulated".

Debate on the bill opened in parliament as Sarkozy and his governing party faced criticism from the leftist opposition after they accused several media in France, including Agence France-Presse, of bias.

Sarkozy complained during a meeting with deputies from his UMP party earlier this month that several French media had failed to properly cover a court decision against his defeated Socialist rival, Segolene Royal.

Two former employees won a court ruling in early April against Royal in a wrongful dismissal case.

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