Sarkozy seeks calm over journalist arrest

French President Nicolas Sarkozy distanced himself from the arrest of journalist Vittorio de Filippis on libel charges and said he would push for a review of defamation laws following criticism that the arrest was intended to intimidate the press.


REUTERS  -  French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Monday he understood the anger over the arrest of a journalist, distancing himself from two ministers who had defended the justice system over the affair.

Vittorio de Filippis was arrested at dawn on Friday on the orders of a French judge investigating allegations of defamation involving comments posted by a reader on the website of the journalist's newspaper, Liberation.

Filippis was a senior editor at the paper in 2006 when the offending comment was posted and is therefore held responsible under French law for the libel charges.

He said a policeman who arrested him in front of his children had called him "worse than scum". He was handcuffed and strip-searched twice before being questioned by a judge then released.

Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie and Justice Minister Rachida Dati both defended the arrest on Monday and said legal authorities had followed normal procedures.

However, many politicians and newspapers denounced the move, saying it was intended to intimidate and humiliate the press.

With passions rising, Sarkozy tried to ease tensions. He said he wanted to change the law and decriminalise defamation, thereby removing the threat of arrest and imprisonment.

"The president understands the emotions caused by the execution of a judicial warrant in a case of defamation," his office said in a statement.

He said he had already asked experts to review libel laws, adding that the legislation might change next year.

The defamation case against Liberation newspaper was lodged by a French businessman who has already lost two other libel actions against it.

Liberation editors said they had been willing to meet judge Muriel Josie to discuss the allegations and that there had been no need to haul in Filippis. Justice Minister Dati said he had not responded to three separate summons to talk to the judge.

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