Press freedom increasingly under threat in France


Fifty journalists declined an invitation to a conference on freedom of expression, writes Lara Marlowein Paris

PRESIDENT NICOLAS Sarkozy's government tempted fate by hosting a two-day conference entitled Freedom of Expression: Cornerstone of Democracy to mark its EU presidency and the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Sackings, searches of newspaper offices, the detention of several journalists, legislation that inhibits press freedom and the concentration of media in the hands of Mr Sarkozy's friends are blighting press freedom here. Some 50 French journalists declined invitations to the conference.

The brave Florence Aubenas, who was a hostage in Baghdad for five months in 2005, was the only French journalist who agreed to participate. She delivered a brilliant rejoinder to the morning of platitudes at Paris's Hilton Hotel, where 218 people had gathered on a junket funded by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights.

"Bonjour. Je suis journaliste," Aubenas introduced herself, declaring her profession like a badge of honour. "I thought we were going to talk about freedom of expression and how to defend it. I heard more talk about surveillance and punishment than promoting and helping." The audience burst into loud applause.

In her speech a few minutes earlier, the justice minister, Rachida Dati, said: "Justice also has the duty to punish the abuses of freedom of expression . . . There are limits that it is not possible to cross . . . which is why the judge must sometimes intervene . . ." Unfortunately, Dati and Jacques Barrot, the EU commissioner for justice, liberty and security, ducked out of the conference without answering journalists' questions, and before Aubenas's unsettling address.

"I don't know what Europe you live in, but I don't hear calls for paedophilia, terrorism or racism when I turn on the radio in the morning," Aubenas continued, alluding to the conference's themes. "I don't think these are the principal danger threatening freedom of expression today."

Reporters Without Borders is an association that rates countries annually on their defence of press freedom. "France, great country of human rights, where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed 60 years ago, just a few hundred metres from here, ranks 35th," she noted.

Aubenas recounted the events of the past week alone: "On Friday, there was a demonstration in front of the Palais de Justice over the brutal arrest of a journalist in his home."

The journalist, Vittorio de Filippis - a former director of Libération newspaper - was subjected to two rectal searches by police. The previous evening, Aubenas noted, deputies from the right-wing UMP voted in a law that will give President Sarkozy the right to nominate and fire the head of France's public TV stations.

Earlier in the week, the editors' syndicate protested because Le Figaro, owned by Sarkozy's friend Serge Dassault, erased a €15,000 diamond ring in a photograph of justice minister Dati, because it didn't look appropriate in times of economic crisis.

At Nouvel Observateur magazine, which employs Aubenas, "A minister and an adviser at the Élysée called to complain about articles before they were published. They said they'd been unfairly treated, that we should change the titles and certain sentences. So in France, politicians think it's possible to call newspapers and magazines to change articles about them. That's how the press works here."

At Journal du Dimanche, owned by Mr Sarkozy's close friend Arnaud Lagardère, journalists voted unanimously to appeal to their editors to adopt a line more independent of Sarkozy's.

"All this happened last week," Aubenas said. "It's not Anna Politkovskaya . . . But all of you know there are special ties between the government and the press in France. I would say it with less passion if this tendency was going in the right direction. It's not. In France, we suffer from the weight of politics on the media."

Aubenas didn't go into the recent sorry history of press freedom in France - that at least two prominent journalists have been sacked for crimes of lèse-majesté against Sarkozy.

Ulysse Gosset has been fired by state-owned France 24 television, apparently because vain foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, took exception to a profile of himself. Kouchner's wife, Christine Ockrent, sacked Gosset and three other journalists who stepped out of line. The government's banana republic employment practices were exemplified by Kouchner appointing his wife to the richly paid post of director general delegate of France 24, Radio France Internationale and TV5 Monde. Ockrent has axed what she calls "anxiety-provoking" reporting, including a highly regarded radio programme on the Middle East.

I asked Anastasia Crickley, professor at NUI Maynooth and elected chairwoman of the EU's Agency for Fundamental Rights, whether the EU wasn't missing the beam in the eye of France to concentrate on more consensual motes. "Our remit in the agency is not naming and blaming," she said.

"It is to raise awareness, do research and influence European legislation. I wouldn't take it on myself to comment on the particular situation in France at the moment."