France: "Copwatch" site blocked
Ruth Michaelson: "Copwatch" site blocked
17 Oct 11

Copwatch, a French website that publishes photos of police brutality and publicise cases of French police officers with links to the far-right, was dealt a blow on Friday in a move designed to block access to the site on French soil.

In the High Court (Tribunal de Grande Instance) in Paris on the 14October, the case – dated  4 October — was brought against six FAI’s (Fournisseurs d’accès à internet or internet service providers). The injunction blocks any internet user within France from accessing Copwatch via the six largest internet providers; Free, France Telecom, SFR, Bouygues Telecom, Numericable and Darty Telecom. However, the site remains fully operational via Tor, aka The Onion Router, a layered encryption service allowing anonymous web publishing.

Claude Guéant, the Minister of the Interior and former Chief of Staff to president Nicholas Sarkozy, initially pushed for the deletion of 10 pages displaying personal details of police officers with connections to extreme right groups. However, following the six FAI’s countering that this would be “technically impossible” according to news site, the tribunal then selected a course of action intended to be far more punitive.

In a statement, the site administrators said: “We hereby confirm once more that this database was set up to collect information on members of the police force, who due to their status are both representatives of the state and the “democratic republic”, and are thus public officials by their own choosing.”

They continued that the database “is a tool which allows individuals to become acquainted with these same public officials” and that contrary to the position pushed by the government on Friday, only those with links to the extreme right have had their privacy infringed. Furthermore, they stated that “as for those members of the police force who felt “in danger” for themselves or their families and accuse us of…inciting reprisals, these are the same individuals who participate daily in the destruction of the lives of large numbers of people and their families, principally through an over-zealous use of their powers.”

Finally, the group stated that with regard to their allegedly stirring up “anti-cop hatred” within the French populace, that this hatred was already present due to the actions of the police force themselves, and that all that Copwatch have done is to allow this a public space within the media.

Fitwatch, the British equivalent of Copwatch, who monitor the actions of the FIT (Forward Intelligence Teams) within the police force and push to keep the right to protest without surveillance or harassment by the police, has issued a statement of “full solidarity” with Copwatch on its site. Included in this statement is the remark that offences of so-called “outrage” exist in France, including “insulting a public servant with supposedly unfounded accusations (eg; calling a cop a fascist to their face) and a law against publishing a public servant’s photo without their permission.”

In 2010, Reporters Without Borders added France to its list of “Countries Under Surveillance” due to the recent implementation of the pernicious HADOPI “three strikes” law and the government’s increasing crackdown on so-called ‘uncivilised’ web activity not to mention individual journalists. France prides itself on being the ultimate democracy, the states’ value of social equality before the law and respect to diversity of beliefs being written into Article II of its constitution. Yet this direct attack on Copwatch sets a dangerous precedent, attacking the site via third party providers and blocking citizens’ access to materials which provide a vital check to supposedly democratic powers. An inability to critique the police force by any means from within your own country cannot be considered democratic; it is an action that most residents of western Europe would typically associate with the repressive governments of Syria or Bahrain than France. If any national police force is ‘the long arm of the law’, then this ruling demonstrates that the French government’s version of democracy is increasingly selective.

By Ruth Michaelson

Ruth Michaelson is a correspondent for Radio France International and freelance journalist based in the Middle East. Her work has appeared in a variety of outlets from Le Monde Diplomatique to Vice. She is currently based in Cairo as part of the Global Post GroundTruth Project.