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Each week, Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project verifies threats, violations and limitations faced by the media throughout the European Union and neighbouring countries. Here are five recent reports that give us cause for concern.
Le FN refuse toujours certains médias car ils posent trop de questions gênantes en désaccord avec leurs idées… https://t.co/8pmw2hwdPi
— Tous contre le FN (@TousContreLeFN_) September 15, 2016
The right-wing National Front (FN) party of France held its summer conference in Fréjus earlier this month. On 16 September the party refused to allow access to the independent media website Mediapart and the Quotidien television programme. The party has denied access to Mediapart in the past due to its critical reporting on the party.
Journalists’ societies of Radio France, le Monde, le Figaro, Libération, le Parisien, les Echos, Courrier International, AEF, France 2, France 3, TF1, Itélé/Canal+ denounced the ban and said they hoped it would not happen again. The FN has refused to grant access to journalists in the past despite this being against the law.
Regardless of the party’s attempt to keep Mediapart from the summer conference, the website claims they hired a freelance writer to cover the event.
Vladimir Romensky was removed by police from a Russian polling station on 18 September. Romensky is a reporter for the independent television channel Dozhd and was sent to the polling station to investigate potential voter fraud. He was responding to rumors that ballot stuffing had occurred at the site.
When Romensky attempted to enter he was approached by a man who refused to introduce himself and did not allow Romensky or his camera crew to access the polling station. A nearby police officer then intervened and demanded to see Romensky’s documents. Despite having all the necessary documents for his camera crew and himself, the police officer called armed guards and pushed the crew out of the station.
Dmitry Korotkov, a reporter for the Russian news site Fontanka, was arrested in St Petersburg on 18 September while investigating voter fraud.
Korotkov was looking into information about carousel voting, which occurs when an organised group of voters travels to different voting districts to repeatedly vote, even though they are not registered in that district. Fontanka discovered that voters were given four ballots at a certain polling station after revealing a special stamp on their passports to polling officials.
Korotkov was able to obtain the passport stamp and received four ballots at the designated polling station even though he was not registered in the specific district. In response, the polling official offered for him to sign as another voter.
Korotkov revealed to the polling official who he was and the fraud that was occurring. The official promised to investigate the situation and called the police, however Korotkov was detained instead. They charged him with illegally obtaining ballot papers.
Arson attack on journalist’s car: A car belonging to the crime correspondent Dina Kleanthous of online news s… https://t.co/t7MzdvCO40
— Tweet Cyprus (@TweetCyprus) September 19, 2016
At around 2am on 19 September, crime reporter Dina Kleanthous’ car was set on fire by an unknown arsonist.
Kleanthous is a reporter for the online news site Reporter Online. She believes the act is not personal, but a response to her work. Kleanthous had recently been receiving threats regarding a story she was covering.
Dunja Mijatović, a representative for the Freedom of Media in the OSCE, said: “This blatant attempt to coerce a journalist who is reporting on news of public interest is simply unacceptable, I urge the authorities to investigate this incident thoroughly and bring to justice those responsible.”
Azerbaijani Minority Journalist Arrested On Drug Charges: The chief editor of the Baku-based “Tolisi sado” (The … http://t.co/IUvXiBbM
— FreePresss (@FreePresss) June 22, 2012
Hilal Mammadov, the editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Tolyshi Sado, was summoned by police on 19 September. The newspaper covers the ethnic minority of Talysh in Azerbaijan.
Mammadov is a former political prisoner, sentenced to five years in prison in 2013 on spurious charges of “illegal selling of drugs”, “high treason”, and “incitement to national, racial, social, and religious hatred and hostility”. Mammadov was pardoned in March 2016.
After being summoned on 19 September, Mammadov claims the police asked him whether he was a part of a “secret opposition“ and he was forced to give the names of his family to the officials.
Since Tuesday 3 November 2015, the fourth part of the Bettencourt case is being judged in a Bordeaux court. This time the accused is Pascal Bonnefoy, former butler of Liliane Bettencourt. Bonnefoy is accused of privacy violations in conjunction with media outlets Le Point and Mediapart, which reproduced excerpts of recordings Bonnefoy had made. The tapes allowed the French justice system to condemn several people for abuse of a vulnerable person — the L’Oréal heiress — and spawned investigations into alleged corruption.
Following a court decision that became effective on Monday 22 July 2013, independent French news website Mediapart has had to withdraw the infamous Bettencourt “butler tapes” from its website, as well as 72 articles including quotes from the recordings, prompting a campaign of solidarity in the French and international media.
In the balance between freedom to inform and right to privacy, the court ruled that it was more important to protect the right to privacy. Reporters Without Borders published the censored content on Wefightcensorship.org, a website that has until now published content from countries more commonly associated with abuses of press freedom, such as Turkmenistan, China and Belarus.
Between 2009 and 2010, Pascal Bonnefoy, the butler of L’Oréal heiress, 87 year-old Liliane Bettencourt, secretly recorded conversations between his boss and Patrice de Maistre, her wealth manager, as well as other advisers. As Bonnefoy explained in a recent interview with French Vanity Fair, he did this because he thought Bettencourt was being manipulated by a close circle of advisers and friends. Apalled by the conversations he had intercepted, he gave the recordings to Bettencourt’s daughter who gave them to representatives of the justice system.
A 21 hour-long copy of the tape also came in possession of Mediapart and Le Point magazine. Journalists at the two publications edited down the content to one hour, getting rid of references to Liliane Bettencourt’s private life. What they kept was damning: the excerpts published in June 2010, contained, among other things, evidence of tax evasion and influence peddling, they raised suspicions of illegal political funding and interference in justice proceedings by a French presidential adviser.
The butler tapes have been at the centre of a lengthy investigation, as the Bettencourt case gradually unfolded, turning into the Bettencourt-Woerth case (when it appeared that Eric Woerth, successively budget and labour minister during Sarkozy’s presidential term, was involved) and the Sarkozy case, when France’s ex-president was placed under investigation over allegations that he had accepted illegal donations. The recordings were recognised as evidence by the criminal chamber of the appeal court in January 2012 and will be at the centre of a trial in Bordeaux, which date is still to be announced.
Meanwhile, following a complaint by Bettencourt’s legal guardian and by her former wealth manager, the Versailles appeal court ruled on 4 July that Mediapart and Le Point had to take down the recordings and all direct quotes from it or face significant financial penalties (10,000 euros per day per infraction). They will also have to pay 20,000 euros of damages to Bettencourt if her representatives claim the fee.
“What’s the balance between the freedom to inform and the right to privacy? This is the question raised by this ruling”, says Antoine Héry, head of the World Press Freedom Index at Reporters Without Borders. For him, the excerpts of the recordings used by Mediapart and Le Point are of public interest. “Erasing this content means erasing a part of this country’s collective memory”, he says. “Mediapart has written a lot about the case, which marks an important moment of French Fifth Republic’s history, and possibly one of the greatest scandal it has known,” he adds. The ruling might have a chilling effect – and make it more difficult for journalists to break stories in the future, for fear of costly court proceedings and fees. It will also make it complicated for Mediapart to write about the upcoming Bordeaux court case, as its journalists won’t be able to quote from the recordings, which constitute a very central piece of evidence.
“This decision”, says Edwy Plenel, a former Le Monde editor, who co-founded Mediapart in 2008 with other former print journalists, “is incredibly backwards, and recalls the very reactionary decisions taken by the judiciary system during the Second Empire, which showed an increasing tension towards the growing modernity of the publishing world and journalism.” For Plenel, the verdict can only be read as a reaction to changes prompted by the Internet – which allows a free circulation of information. It is part of a greater debate which has been taking place around the Snowden and Wikileaks case, and the Condamin-Gerbier case in Switzerland, where national security, banking secrecy and protection of privacy are opposed to the right to inform. Mediapart will appeal to the decision in France and take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if needs be.
The solidarity campaign which immediately followed the Versailles court decision has shown that such a verdict was absurd in the era of internet. After three years, the Bettencourt file has entered the public domain and has been copied everywhere: it’s easy to find on BitTorrent or Reflets.info. Following the verdict, several publications immediately offered to host the content that Mediapart was obliged to censor as a sign of protest. Among them, Belgian national newspaper Le Soir, French publications such as rue89 website, Les Inrockuptibles magazine or Arrêt sur Images website. Media organisations, NGOs and unions launched an appeal entitled “We have the right to know” supported by 53,000 signatures, which said: “When it comes to public affairs, openness should be the rule and secrecy the exception.”
Following the Streisand effect, the Versailles verdict seems to have backfired. Never have so many people listened to the Bettencourt tapes, nor read about the story, nor be interested in Mediapart, an investigative journalism website which has proven its ability to set the news agenda in France, and created a new business model as French printed press sunk deeper into crisis – Mediapart charges readers for access and doesn’t carry any advertisement.
Le Monde, France’s most well-known newspaper, abstained from the solidarity campaign, as well as conservative newspaper Le Figaro, a decision seen by many as disappointing, given that Le Monde was associated with Wikileaks and Offshore Leaks earlier this year.
“For me”, says Plenel, “this can be explained by a certain illiberal tradition within the French press, the fact that in this country journalism is often too close to political power, and also by a certain fear of the changes that Internet is causing in the media – embodied by Mediapart.” This distrust of new media associated with the Internet could explain the smear campaign endured by Mediapart by a good part of the traditional and conservative press from December last year, when the website broke the Cahuzac scandal (also prompted by a tape) which caused France’s budget minister to resign in April, finally admitting that he had a secret offshore account. France’s traditional written press seems to have become extremely cautious, and unable to break scandals, a task which was filled for a long time by the satirical weekly publication Le Canard Enchaîné, and now is also filled by Mediapart.
How does France rank on the Press Freedom Index?
“It’s only 37”, says Héry. A mediocre rank explained by the mediocrity of the law framing the protection of sources for journalists, and by reforms passed during Sarkozy’ presidency which streightened governmental control over France Télévisions, the French public national television broadcaster – allowing France’s president to name its CEO. Hollande’s government is expected to work on these issues – and new laws on the protection of sources for journalists, the status of whistleblower, and the nomination of the head of France Television should be passed. On Friday, the appeal launched in solidarity with Mediapart was handed to Aurélie Fillippetti, minister of culture and communication of the Hollande government, as well as the whole Bettencourt file.
Interestingly, the Versailles verdict took place on the same day France refused to grant asylum to Edward Snowden – a strong reminder that France could do a lot better to protect the right to inform and to be informed.