New bill on protection of sources “imperfect,” say French journalists


imageOn the eve of 2010, the French Parliament adopted a long-awaited bill on the protection of anonymous sources. It has prompted mixed reactions from journalists.

France’s National Syndicate of Journalists (SNJ) called the bill “imperfect”. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based organisation, said it offers “inadequate protection.”

Despite the criticism, journalists have welcomed several advances. They include:

  • The formal right for journalists to hide sources
  • Stricter rules for searches by investigators
  • Invalidation of information obtained through phone taps
  • A ban on trying to obtain sources from journalists’ relations

There can be exceptions, however, if there is “an overriding requirement in the public interest.” This provision has drawn much fire.

“In my opinion there is deliberate vagueness,” said Marie-Christine Lipani-Vaissade, a teacher in press law at the Journalism Institute of Bordeaux Aquitaine. “In the future anything could be used as a pretext: it could be terrorism, it could be paedophilia.”

Devil is in the detail

Journalists are also unsatisfied with some of these details. Olivier Da Lage, a journalist at Radio France Internationale and an active member of the SNJ, is generally positive about the new bill. But he pointed to several potential loopholes for investigators on his blog.

“If a journalist is absent or not represented during a search, investigators can choose the ‘witness’ who is supposed to guarantee that the search is legal. Why do I have the feeling that they will never disagree with them?,” Da Lage wrote in one part of his assessment.

The bill states that during searches, a journalist can ask investigators to put any documents they take away in a sealed bag. A judge then has to decide if the documents can be used for the investigation or if they have to be returned to the journalist.

International law

The new bill was first debated in the French Parliament in 2008. It aimed to bring French law more into line with European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) case law.

In a landmark ruling in 1996, the ECHR overturned a British court decision against William Goodwin. A journalist, he had been ordered to disclose his sources for a business story.

“Protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom,” the ruling read. “Without such protection, sources may be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest.”

The European court has since cancelled similar rulings in several countries. Just a few days before the French Parliament approved the new bill, it decided that a British court had illegally ordered five media companies to name their sources for articles about a Belgian brewing company.

First test case

It remains to be seen how French investigators and judges will interpret the new bill on the protection of sources. Already, the first test case has already arrived.

This month, police interrogated two journalists about letters from a fugitive and murder suspect, Jean-Pierre Treiber. The letters were published in the magazine Paris Match. When the interrogation of the journalists took place,Treiber had already been recaptured. The SNJ said the law has been “scandalously flouted.”

The Belgian example

The SNJ regrets that French lawmakers did not adopt a bill like the one adopted in Belgium in 2005. Under Belgian law, journalists can be asked to disclose sources only if it can “prevent the commission of a crime that constitutes a threat to the physical integrity of one or several persons.”

This wording is thought to make exceptions rare.

Flickr images from users pareeerica,  photographer padawan *(xava du)