By Delphine Bauer
For more than one year now, French journalists covering social demonstrations have been facing increasing levels of police violence. It comes as the ECPMF and partners prepare to launch their Press Freedom Police Codex in France.
Insulted, threatened or physically assaulted, the French reporters are concerned that they are seeing press freedom being eroded before their very eyes.
“Our collective was born out of a feeling of great fatigue: we were fed up with seeing journalists arrested in front of police stations or press boxes and denouncing violence against us without seeing any change.” Eloïse Bajou, who works as a freelance journalist and photographer, is a 41 year old member of the new reporters’ collective called REC (Reporters En Colère, which translates as ‘Reporters in a rage’). The members of REC have three main goals: developing their collective action, raising awareness amongst citizens and asking questions in the political community. “At the sites of the social demonstrations that have emerged in the French social landscape for years now, we always find the same team of reporters. Each time, we talk about what happens to us – arrests or even injuries. Eventually, we felt we had to do something”, she explains. In November 2019, one year after the start of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement, the collective was officially launched. Their biggest concerns? “Confiscation of equipment, insults, threats and missiles thrown at some journalists“, Eloïse Bajou describes the main problems.
More than 120 incidents
In the eyes of Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), an NGO that defends journalists’ rights, “The French journalists have faced an exceptional level of violence, especially in the first six months of the Gilets Jaunes demonstrations (from November 2018 to May 2019) “, declares Pauline Adès-Mével, the RSF spokeswoman in charge of this issue. According to their data, RSF have counted more than 120 incidents involving journalists, on a regular basis and during marches all over the country, and more than 54 journalists have been injured. “I cannot remember any such intensity of injuries among journalists“, confirms Sebastian Roché, a French political scientist. The over-representation of journalists among the casualties cannot be just an accident since they’re a minority of all the people at the demonstrations. The political scientist explains: ”There’s a body of evidence that shows the protection of journalists is clearly not a priority for the government nor for the police hierarchy. On the contrary we can see a limitation of the freedom to inform, based on the wider use of the French Anti-terrorism Act“.
From the police’s side, an internal source puts the statistics in context, explaining that the law enforcement authorities have been overstretched recently, and that created a specific and tightly-regulated atmosphere during the demonstrations. Some specific difficulties could have made the work on the field even more complicated for police officers : “ We have to deal with unorganised, popular and spontaneous events, sometimes with no internal security staff (stewards), and with the presence of black blocs, who don’t march in a peaceful state of mind“, the source says.
A high level of violence
Besides, again according to that police source, “There’s a real problem with journalists, as they’re not always identifiables. Anyone can pretend to be a journalist. Some of them are, but some aren’t”. Eloïse Bajou doesn’t share that point of view at all and she’s pleased to note that the journalists’ unions have supported journalists under threat, with or without a press card. “It’s not the role of the police to decide who and who isn’t journalist“, she stresses. RSF agrees on that point, which seems to be unanimously a non-issue from the journalism side. “We defend journalists in the same way, whether they have a press card or not. As long as they work for a media outlet and document the demonstrations, we show the same commitment. We can’t tolerate that journalists are being beaten up in this way “, says Pauline Adès-Mével.
In fact, the question of the press card doesn’t change the challenges that all reporters on the Gilets Jaunes beat have to deal with. Even while they’re causing no trouble but peacefully doing their jobs, they’re nevertheless sometimes intentionally targeted as journalists . And among all the casualties, “They’re over-represented“, insists Sebastian Roché. On the 20th of December 2019, RSF decided to support and help thirteen journalists who have been injured last year to file a lawsuit for deliberate violence and actual bodily harm perpetrated by a representative of a public authority. Among them, the photojournalist Xavier Léoty, who suffered a broken knee caused by the shooting of an LBD grenade (12.01.19) and more recently, the Turkish photojournalist Mustafa Yalcin, who has a serious eye injury after being shot with a grenade (5.12.19). Editors note: LBD stands for ’lanceur de balle de défense’ or ’defensive missile launcher’.
“More cases may exist but these ones are very well documented and absolutely certain: we’ve got videos, pictures, testimonies… “, says Pauline Adès-Mével. Even if so far, no officer has yet been reprimanded by the police hierarchy … to her, there was no option other than going for a trial since the reactions of the IGPN (the internal police investigation team), when contacted by victims, have often been too slow or ineffective. Admittedly, our police source reminds us that the investigations are still ongoing. He doesn’t believe that there is general and systemic repression against journalists, but agrees that ”Individual police officers have responsibilities, irrespective of their rank”.
Surprisingly, David Dufresne (pictured above), a French investigative journalist whose name has become inseparable from the inventory of police brutality, concurs: “There’s no clear order to attack journalists“. But he’s not naïve: no official orders doesn’t mean there’s not an atmosphere of laisser-faire that leads to some risky situations for journalists. “There’s more and more physical contact between reporters and police, coming from a change of strategy over the last few years. It increases the risk of being injured. But the question is: when a reporter gets a smoke grenade in the face, how is it possible to justify this action since a camera is not a weapon ? It’s only a weapon in cases where there is a lack of ethics.. Some non-lethal weapons should be only used in cases of legitimate self-defence, and that rule is not always respected,” he regrets.
A democratic issue
Since the start of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement, David Dufresne’s done a huge amount of work to record the cases of injured demonstrators and journalists. By becoming a point of reference,he considers that police violences have been under-reported by the French media, who are reluctant to denounce those abuses because of political reasons and conflict of interest issues. As a response of the standardisation of information relayed by global media outlets, he salutes the determination of the most precarious reporters, who cover the heart of the demonstrations, and witness potential abuses at very close quarters. Their mission is absolutely needed as a democratic counter-balance. “I feel like I have no other choice than to cover the demonstrations. We have to be there, and I probably feel even twice as motivated to do so when I see the violence that we have to overcome“, says Eloïse Bajou. David Dufresne notes that “ So far, the government has remained silent when it comes to police violence. I’m concerned because we have switched from a law enforcement model to a repression model “, he says. When abuses are committed ( videos deleted, press cards torn, equipment broken, grenades thrown into people’s face even though face it’s strictly forbidden), ”Journalists become unwanted witnesses”, explains David Dufresne. Strictly supporting the 12th article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which affirms that the activities of the police have to serve the people and not those in power at the time, he continues to report serious physical attacks against journalists. So far, he’s documented more than 800 cases of violence or unethical violations of the rules by the police (police officers wearing a hood, with no RIO identification number, for example …) All these incidents take place in a more global and national context, where “France has in the last decade lost its position amongst the world’s full democracies and joined the group of partially democratic states”, according to Sebastian Roché.
Meeting with France’s Interior Minister
On the issue of how journalists are treated during demonstrations, RSF has great expectations. “We’ve met Christophe Castaner (Interior Minister) and we have asked for a list to be circulated demanding that police officers must respect the practice of journalism and preserve the freedom of information”, explains Pauline Adès-Mével. In the next few months, the new law enforcement schema should be formalised. She hopes that the RSF’s recommendations – for better consultation between the two professions, a special training for the police to help them identify journalists, a more effective way to sanction abuses – will be included. “The government has to send us a sign of goodwill. We won’t let the police keep on attacking journalists and we won’t let the justice system remain silent. “ Even if our police source says that journalists should take part in police training to better understand their way of dealing with security, he also confesses that “being responsible for the loss of an eye is far from edifying“. So reconciliation won’t be easy. “ The government held captive by its rhetoric of confrontation, minimising the violence and failing to find solutions so far. It no longer knows how to get out of this situation “, concludes Sebastian Roché
Press Freedom Police Codex to launch in France
The European Press Freedom Police Codex, compiled by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom and its partner organisation in dialogue with the police association EUROCOP, will be launched in the French language at a event in Paris on 22.January 2020.
The author Delphine Bauer is a 36 year old French freelance journalist. She’s a member of the freelancers collective Youpress. For years, she’s been covering international news (Middle-East, Africa, South-East Asia…) for French press and magazines. She’s recently started to focus on health issues, especially concerning women.