The treatment of Vittorio Filippis, former publisher of Libération,
signals the deteriorating situation for the media in France. Natasha Lehrer reports
A demonstration was held on 5 December outside Paris’s Palais de la Justice to protest against the heavy-handed treatment of the former publisher of the left-wing French daily newspaper Libération, Vittorio de Filippis. De Filippis was arrested early in the morning of 28 November at his home in the outskirts of Paris; when he protested the arrest one of the police officers called him ‘worse than racaille’, (a derogatory term that roughly means ‘scum’, notoriously used by Nicholas Sarkozy when he was interior minister to describe young men living in certain tough banlieues). De Filippis was insulted in the presence of his 14-year-old son before being handcuffed behind his back and taken in a police van to the basement ‘holding pen’ of the Palais de Justice. During his wait to be charged, he was strip-searched. His ordeal lasted for five hours.
His crime? During de Filippis’ brief tenure as publisher of Libération, from June to December 2006, a reader’s comment was left on the newspaper’s website concerning a libel case being brought by Xaviel Niel, founder of the internet company Free, against the newspaper. Niel, who has already brought and lost four lawsuits against the newspaper, brought a third in response to the reader’s comment. As publisher of the newspaper at the time de Filippis is considered responsible for all editorial content, even one left by a member of the public. Libel, in France, is a criminal offense.
The arrest came after de Filippis had apparently ignored three mailed summons from Muriel Josie, the investigating magistrate. Whilst it caused uproar from political parties on both sides of the spectrum, and Frédéric Lefebvre, a spokesman for the UMP, President Sarkozy’s party, called the arrest and interrogation ‘surreal’, the response from the government has been muted. Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, in a faint echo of Jacqui Smith’s protestations over Damian Green’s recent arrest, merely said that ‘The police officers followed procedures’ and were simply acting on the orders of the investigating judge handling the case. Rachida Dati, France’s beleaguered Justice Minister, considered the police handling of the arrest to be regulière, meaning regular, or reasonable.
The affair comes at a time when there is increased concern over press freedom in France. With a long tradition of self-censorship in the French press, there is justified additional concern that several of the country’s media barons are close friends of President Sarkozy. Sarkozy recently added to an already unhealthy state of affairs by announcing a new law that would allow the president to hire and fire the head of the country’s state broadcaster.
Paris-based organization Reporters sans Frontières puts France in 35th place in the world press freedom rankings for 2008, down four places from 2007.