In France, Tensions Increase Between Police and Journalists
Journalists denounce police violence while a new security bill threatens public freedoms
Police brutality denounced on Twitter during the evacuation of a refugee camp
On the night of November 23 to 24, 2020, about 450 migrants were evacuated from “Place de la République” in Paris, where humanitarian associations had organized the distribution of tents. As the refugees were expelled from another camp a week earlier, they wanted them to rest overnight before finding a new place for establishing the camp. Activists decided to spend the night between the tents, in the hope of protecting refugees from violence.
Throughout the evening, shocking images were posted on social media by journalists and associations covering the distribution, mostly with the hashtag #République. They showed the use of tear gas and anti-riot grenades, along with migrants harshly forced to come out of their tents.
Médecin du Monde and Utopia 56, associations that attended the scene, publicly denounced the evacuation progress.
Minister of the Interior, Gérard Darmanin, having taken note of the videos, addressed the controversy in a tweet:
“Some images of the dispersal of the illegal migrant camp on Place de la République are shocking. I have just requested a detailed report on the reality of the facts from the Prefect of Police by midday tomorrow. I will make decisions upon receipt.”
Among the crowd was Rémy Buisine, a journalist from the webzine “Brut”, sent at “Place de la République” to film the distribution. A video posted on journalist Nicolas Mayart’s tweeter account, viewed more than 900,000 times, shows Rémy Buisine assaulted by a police officer while he was peacefully recording videos. Later, “Brut” published a tweet in support of its employee. The Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation for police violence.
These growing tensions between police officers and journalists are even more disturbing that they happened just days after thousands of people mobilized against a new security bill. Newspapers, lawyers, and journalists all rallied to criticize the proposed law, which aims to strengthen police prerogatives and surveillance.
Why is this law controversial?
Among all measures, one was particularly criticized, as it would forbid to publish pictures that could help identify police officers. Journalists fear that they will no longer be able to report on police brutality during demonstrations.
Indeed, article 24 of the bill would create a new criminal offense, punishing with a year of imprisonment and a fine of 45,000 euros, for broadcasting, with the intention to affect physical or mental integrity, the image of the face or any other element of identification of an agent of the national police, or of the national gendarmerie, other than his identification number, when acting in the context of a police operation.
The Defender of Rights, Claire Hédon, raised concerns about this measure, stating it was an “unnecessary incrimination” and “a violation of the freedom of communication, the freedoms the expression of ideas and opinions”.
In her opinion, the new bill could “risk, rather than protecting the police, obstructing freedom of expression, especially for journalists, who are responsible for covering protests.” She added that the law could constitute an obstacle to the control of police officers’ actions, making it impossible to identify “the abuses and violence often committed during manifestations.”
Indeed, the French law already requires law enforcement officials to conduct police operations with uncovered faces and clearly displaying their identification numbers to allow police violence victims to identify their attackers.
However, recalls the Defender of Rights, this is not always respected. She reported the wearing of balaclavas on several occasions in recent years, which hinders police officers’ identification. Finally, she indicated that this offense was unnecessary, as other legal dispositions already protect police officers’ identities.
“The Paris Bar is aware that the identification number is not part of the identification elements prohibited from distribution, but unfortunately, many agents do not respect the visible wearing of the identification number, despite obligatory, on uniforms.”
The Bar condemned many other provisions of the bill. Among them, articles 20 to 23 generalize video surveillance and allow the police to employ drones to film demonstrations.
Furthermore, on November 13, The National Bar Council, which represents all lawyers in France, urged the Parliament not to vote the law during the state of emergency under an accelerated procedure.