The French Constitutional Council has approved a law that criminalizes the filming or broadcasting of acts of violence by people other than professional journalists. The law could lead to the imprisonment of eyewitnesses who film acts of police violence, or operators of Web sites publishing the images, one French civil liberties group warned on Tuesday.
The council chose an unfortunate anniversary to publish its decision approving the law, which came exactly 16 years after Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King were filmed by amateur videographer George Holliday on the night of March 3, 1991. The officers’ acquittal at the end on April 29, 1992 sparked riots in Los Angeles.
If Holliday were to film a similar scene of violence in France today, he could end up in prison as a result of the new law, said Pascal Cohet, a spokesman for French online civil liberties group Odebi. And anyone publishing such images could face up to five years in prison and a fine of 75,000 Euros (US$98,537), potentially a harsher sentence than that for committing the violent act.
Senators and members of the National Assembly had asked the council to rule on the constitutionality of six articles of the Law relating to the prevention of delinquency. The articles dealt with information sharing by social workers, and reduced sentences for minors. The council recommended one minor change, to reconcile conflicting amendments voted in parliament. The law, proposed by Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy, is intended to clamp down on a wide range of public order offenses. ...
The broad drafting of the law so as to criminalize the activities of citizen journalists unrelated to the perpetrators of violent acts is no accident, but rather a deliberate decision by the authorities, said Cohet. He is concerned that the law, and others still being debated, will lead to the creation of a parallel judicial system controlling the publication of information on the Internet.
The government has also proposed a certification system for Web sites, blog hosters, mobile-phone operators and Internet service providers, identifying them as government-approved sources of information if they adhere to certain rules. The journalists’ organization Reporters Without Borders, which campaigns for a free press, has warned that such a system could lead to excessive self censorship as organizations worried about losing their certification suppress certain stories.
Odebi, the French internet watchdog group mentioned in the Yahoo news story, has further details at their French website [my translation]:
The Constitutional Council has validated the Sarkozy Law on delinquency this past Saturday, March 3.
This law comprises an article prohibiting, with up to five years in prison and outside of any link with the perpetrators of the violence, the distribution of videos displaying this violence – as for instance police violence – over the internet by any citizen who would not be a professional journalist. This makes of France the western nation most detrimental to freedom of expression and information, particularly over the internet.
The League denounces the almost total absence of any clear and exhaustive information by the mainstream media, which have descended upon this article and presented it to the public as permitting a fight against “happy slapping”.
The League states that even the Forum of Internet Rights failed in its mission to inform the public, by not explaining to internet users the real significance of this text, and from this fact the League demands the resignation of its President, for having brought about the un-credibilization of the only authority on co-regulation of the net that could have initially been conceptually acceptable.
This text, with its extremely serious infringement upon freedom of expression and information as well as citizen journalism over the internet, was put in place the moment that the government tried to impose by decree a commission of professional ethics for the internet, and a labeling of information sites, which comes evidently to complete that which can only seem to be a coordinated plan to control the distribution of information over the internet.
For the League Odebi, this anti-democratic law is fundamentally not respectable. It reveals either the ignorance of its authors, or their drive to soon install a security regime without precedent in the west: videos would be seen outside of France in any event, and only filtering them at the borders would keep them from being seen in France. As well, the identification of [video] uploaders will necessitate the installation of a totalitarian surveillance of the internet.
Therefore one conclusion: either this law will not be respected, or it will have to be imposed by authoritarian methods that democracies cannot use.
The League therefore calls upon all internet users who count upon their liberty of expression and information to draw from this all the consequences as of the “premier tour” in the presidential election.