French bill banning images of police sparks concern over media freedom, civil rights
France’s parliament voted to approve a controversial law Friday that will ban the publication of images of on-duty police officers as well as expand the use of surveillance drones and police powers. Journalists’ groups, human rights activists and unions – including Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International’s French branch – organised protests in Paris and other French cities on Saturday.
Article 24 of France’s new security bill would make it a criminal offence for anyone to disseminate images that might “harm the physical or mental integrity” of police officers. People found guilty could be punished by a year in prison or a fine of up to €45,000.
Critics of the bill say it threatens to make it more difficult for journalists and others to report on police brutality or other infractions, with journalists’ groups, human rights activists and unions organising the protests in French cities.
Facing a backlash, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin tried to assuage public fears in comments to parliament on Friday. Journalists and members of the public can still “film and broadcast” images of police officers even “without blurring their faces”, he said. It is only when the images are shared with comments “intended to harm” or incite violence that they would fall afoul of the new law.
Media organisations had criticised Darmanin for telling a press conference on Wednesday that journalists covering protests or demonstrations should inform the authorities beforehand to “avoid confusion” if police are forced to respond to violence.
Alice Thourot, an MP for President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) party and the co-author of the controversial clause, also tried to quell concern.
“The bill will not jeopardise in any way the rights of journalists or ordinary citizens to inform the public,” Thourot told French daily Le Figaro, adding that it only “outlaws any calls for violence or reprisals against police officers on social media”.
In response to claims that Article 24 would have unintended consequences on press freedom, the government added an amendment ahead of Friday’s vote specifying that the clause “will not be an obstacle to the right to inform the public”. The offence outlined by the text “will only target the dissemination of images clearly aimed at harming a police officer’s or soldier’s physical or psychological integrity”, the amendment reads.
MPs are scheduled to vote on the bill as a whole on Tuesday. It will then go to the Senate, France's upper house.
But the controversial article has raised eyebrows, coming as it does after a summer of mass public protests against police brutality and accusations of systemic racism.
Activists have alleged that police brutality was responsible for the killing of Adama Traoré, a Frenchman of Malian origin who died after his arrest in the Paris suburbs in 2016. An autopsy commissioned by his family said that he died of asphyxiation. The official health report said he died of heart failure, clearing three police officers of responsibility in June.
Several instances of alleged police violence were revealed by videos broadcast on social media. Cédric Chouviat, a delivery driver in Paris, suffered a heart attack and died in January after police put him in a chokehold. Several Yellow Vest protesters were bludgeoned inside a Burger King in Paris in December 2018. Images of both incidents originally surfaced on social media, prompting public outrage.
‘A freedom-killing law’?
Anne-Sophie Simpère, an activist for Amnesty International France, said the amendment is not enough and that the government should withdraw Article 24 in its totality.
“It is a freedom-killing law that would threaten freedom of expression, the right to demonstrate and the right to privacy,” she said.
France’s official rights ombudsman, Claire Hédon, also said Article 24 should be withdrawn, describing it as “unnecessary”. She added that several other clauses in the text were “likely to contravene human rights”, including the right to privacy.
Article 22 of the security bill would allow police greater latitude in the use of surveillance drones. Simpère said drones could now be used in more circumstances that are not subject to regulation. The development of facial recognition technology “raises further concerns”, she said, adding that drones should only be used “if there is a legitimate need and a clear objective”.
Amendments to ban the use of facial recognition technology in drones were rejected on Friday morning.
Addressing parliament, Thourot pointed out that there is currently no “legal framework” regulating the use of drones. Article 22 will allow them to be used only by security forces for purposes including the “prevention of terrorist acts”, she said.
Another clause in the security bill would give local police new powers, including the ability to record minor offences such as traffic violations and to carry out identity checks. Currently, only the national police has these powers.
The security bill would also reform regulations of the private security sector, notably ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France and the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. In particular, it aims to “drastically reduce” the number of subcontractors in the industry to tackle what Thourot has called the “Uberisation” of the industry. The legislation would encourage the employment of retired police officers by allowing them to combine their pensions with pay from security work.
In addition, the bill would allow the broadcast of recordings from police body cameras so that social media videos of police officers could be cross-referenced with them. Supporters of the proposed legislation say that videos of police that are posted on social media are often truncated and frequently present the actions of officers without the necessary context.
Stanislas Gaudon, the head of the Alliance police union, told FRANCE 24 that such images would also help protect police who are carrying out their duties.
“We hope to use image body cameras in these instances to show the truth about what happened” when there are claims of improper behaviour by police officers, he said.
This article was adapted from the original in French.
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