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France mulls ban on police images, alarming rights defenders

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 17, 2020

By Sylvie Corbet Associated Press

PARIS — French lawmakers start debating a security bill Tuesday that would ban the publication of images of police officers with intent to cause them harm, a measure that has provoked outrage from journalist organizations and rights campaigners.

Critics, including the United Nations, France’s human rights ombudsman and Reporters Without Borders, say the proposed law would hurt press freedoms.

More than a hundred people from journalists’ unions and human rights groups protested Tuesday afternoon in front of the National Assembly in Paris, ahead of the debate that was scheduled to begin in the evening.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations expressed fears in a report that the bill “could lead to significant violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression.”

The proposed law is championed by lawmakers of President Emmanuel Macron’s party, which has a majority at the National Assembly.

Its most controversial measure would make it a new criminal offense “to disseminate, by whatever means and on whatever media, with the intent of causing physical or psychological harm, an image of the face or any other element that could identify a police officer.”

Offenders would face up to one year in prison and a $53,000 fine.

Speaking Tuesday at the National Assembly, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who is backing the measure, said the bill aims at preventing “calls for rape” and “murders” of police officers who may be identified on videos.

He downplayed any impact for journalists.

“Will journalists still be able to film? The answer is yes. Will they be able to broadcast? The answer is yes. Will a citizen be able to film police in action? The answer is yes,” he told lawmakers.

But France’s human rights ombudsman, Claire Hedon, said the bill involves “significant risks of undermining fundamental rights,” including press freedom.

“The publication of images relating to police interventions are legitimate and necessary for democratic functioning,” she said.

Critics are warning that the bill will result in “massive” self-censorship and argue that images posted online help expose police blunders and brutality. They say the measure would endanger journalists and other people filming police in action, especially during violent demonstrations. They also worry how courts will determine whether images were posted with intent to harm.

The National Assembly is scheduled to vote next week on the bill, which will then go to the Senate.

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