Global Politics

France clamping down on journalists

By Gerry Hadden

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Gerard Davet will tell you that being an investigative reporter in France is a tough, lonely job.

"I feel very alone here, doing this work," Davet said. "France is different from the US. In all of France, at traditional newspapers, there are just five or six investigative reporters."

Davet sat alone in a quiet corner of France's second largest daily paper, Le Monde. He's the only investigative journalist on staff, but he's making a lot of waves. Last summer, Davet broke a story implicating French president Nicolas Sarkozy in a scandal involving illegal campaign financing from an earlier election.

Davet said his editors 'CCed' him on the story, and Sarkozy 'CCed' the French Secret Service on him.

Davet said Sarkozy didn't appreciate his report.

"He ordered his secret service to find out who my source was within the Justice Ministry. They investigated the phone records of the person they suspected of being my source, and they found my name was on those records," Davet said.

The Justice Ministry source was demoted and posted overseas.

The French government has vehemently denied using the secret service against Le Monde. In the French Parliament last October, Prime Minister Francois Fillon suggested Sarkozy's accusers were paranoid, believing the president was spying on all of Paris.

Nevertheless, Le Monde has sued the government for breaking a year-old whistleblower law that protects the secrecy of journalists' sources. The case highlights a relatively new clash of cultures in French society. Davet said reporters have granted French leaders wide berth, both personally and professionally.

"In France," he said, "we have a long tradition of respecting authority. When there's a romantic scandal involving a politician, for example, we don't touch it. We just don't care. That's the good side. The bad side is that we've been too deferential, and so politicians feel they can do whatever they want."
New Media

But that hands-off mentality is rapidly giving way to a new assertiveness, especially in the "new media."

Take Rue89, an investigative journalism website. It was launched the day Nicolas Sarkozy won the French presidency in 2007. Rue89 director Pierre Haski said a year later the site received and posted online an unofficial video of Sarkozy.

The video captures a moment just before an appearance on public television channel, France 3. But the camera is rolling. Sarkozy gets angry when a producer doesn't say hello. Things are going to change around here, Sarkozy is heard threatening. Then he tries to suggest topics for the interview that's about to start.

In French public broadcasting, threats and suggestions from the president are taken seriously, because the outlets are government funded, and the president appoints the directors. That hardly serves the public good, said David Servenay. Servenay worked for years at the public "Radio France Inter," which is funded by the French Foreign Ministry. Several years ago, he said, he was working on stories in Africa, where French businesses have important investments.

"I was told by my director not to work more on this subject, and this one and this one, without any explanation." Servenay said he finally refused and quit.
Theft and counterfeiting

Servenay helped found Rue89, which, by the way, is being sued by the state for that Sarkozy video. It's not for defamation, but for theft and counterfeiting. Pierre Haski of Rue89 said it's outrageous.

"We didn't put a camera in the bathroom of the Elysee palace or steal something from Carla Bruni," Haski said. "We published a video of the president in a TV studio! It was an important moment, the day he was taking over the European Union presidency, and it related to his functioning as president, so we think we've done our job."

Haski said Rue89 is defending itself against five suits at the moment, and not a week goes by without the threat of another, from the public and private sectors. Haski said it's become a joke.

And it's a costly joke, in legal fees and in terms of the press's willingness to take risks, according to Elsa Vidal of Reporters Without Borders. She said journalists afraid of legal retaliation will think twice before investigating possible wrong-doing.

"That's the reason we are underlining the threats those trends are creating for us. You cannot advocate for freedom in, say, Africa or Russia, if you cannot provide a clear example of that sort of law that already exists and provides excellent results," Vidal said.

Reporters Without Borders ranks press freedom around the world each year. France is 41st, below the European Union average.

The French government did not respond to an interview request on the subject. But it recently dodged a bullet in the suit brought by Le Monde for allegedly using counter-espionage agents to find the paper's source.

A Paris prosecutor dropped the case – not based on evidence, but because the new law that protects journalists' sources has no teeth. No fines, no jail time. In other words, if the government breaks that law a judge can't mete out punishment.

Le Monde is appealing anyway.