France gags freedom of information

By extending the statute of limitations for insulting and defaming elected representatives, the freedom to inform is threatened. Journalists’ unions denounce this unspeakable infringement of press law.

Will it be possible to criticize an elected official or election candidate without risking prosecution for a year after the fact? On February 7, following in the footsteps of the senators, the deputies adopted an amendment to the proposed law aimed at reinforcing the security and protection of mayors and local elected representatives. The amendment stipulates that any “holder of a public elective office or candidate for such an office” can benefit from a one-year statute of limitations in the event of insult or defamation, instead of the three months provided for under the 1881 law. This is an exceptional law, since only elected representatives or candidates for election can benefit from such a derogation.
Hence the outcry from journalists’ unions. Here is their joint reaction.

Reaction from journalists’ unions

“Parliamentarians are having more and more trouble with freedom of expression. During the debate in the Senate on the proposed law to reinforce the security of local elected representatives, an amendment tabled jointly by Senator Catherine Di Folco and the Socialist group modified the 1881 press law. Article 2 bis of this proposal stipulates that the statute of limitations will be extended from three months to one year for the offenses of defamation or public insult against an elected official or a person in a position of public authority, making the law an exception for elected officials only.
The text was debated in the National Assembly on Wednesday February 7, in just 10 minutes, as revealed by the online news magazine Mediapart. Although Renaissance deputy Violette Spillebout limited it to elected representatives, whether local or national, and to candidates for such office, the proposal drives an unprecedented wedge into the fragile balance of the 1881 law.

A model all the way to the ECHR

France’s 1881 press freedom law is a model for the defense of freedom of expression, all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.
The SNJ, SNJ-CGT, CFDT-Journalistes and SGJ-FO, the trade unions representing journalists in France, condemn in the strongest possible terms this amendment to one of the most protective laws for freedom of expression, freedom to inform and to be informed.
This extension of the statute of limitations would put a sword of Damocles over the treatment of political news, with the risk that, for a year, an elected official or candidate could attack a journalist or press publisher if the consequences of information provided by a media outlet were to affect the continuation of his or her term of office.

Pressure on journalists and publishers

It also puts additional financial pressure on publishers, journalists and organizations defending the profession, with the risk of inflation in procedures and their cost.
It’s a blow to democracy as a whole. Journalists would have the right to investigate and do their investigative work, unless they took too close an interest in the political affairs of this country. We’re walking on our heads!
Freedom of expression cannot be negotiated. For more than a century, press publishers and journalists have been held to account by the courts for the weight of their writings, but there can be no question of a category of citizens, who are in the driving seat of legislative power, being able to exert intolerable pressure on editorial freedom to inform.
At a time when the États généraux de l’information is underway, and when citizens’ proposals are calling for transparency, this proposal by the deputies seems to us to be a slap in the face to the free exercise of journalism.

The journalists’ union is categorically opposed to this amendment to the 1881 law, and is calling for the immediate withdrawal of article 2b of the bill. When contacted, Violette Spillebout, Renaissance deputy and rapporteur, said she was “open to a rapid round-table discussion” before the joint commission scheduled for the end of February.
If the bill is adopted as it stands, the union will file a priority question of constitutionality.

[SNJ – SNJ-CGT – CFDT-Journalistes – SGJ-FO]

Reporters Sans Frontières: “It’s inadmissible”.

For its part, Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders) is outraged by this amendment, which was passed on the quiet. It writes: “On February 7, 2024, the French National Assembly adopted an amendment to the press law that extends the statute of limitations for insult and defamation when the person targeted is an elected official or a candidate. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) strongly condemns this dangerous threat to the fragile balance of the 1881 legislation protecting press freedom and freedom of expression.

Why shouldn’t elected representatives and candidates be treated in the same way as other citizens when it comes to insults and defamation? Three months is more than enough time to file a complaint. We’re not unaware of the violence directed at elected representatives, but it’s hard to justify weakening the procedural framework to the sole benefit of one category of the population.

All this after a ten-minute debate in the National Assembly. This is unacceptable. At RSF, we call on members of parliament to reverse these amendments, which will not only fail to protect elected representatives, but also run the risk of proceedings against journalists long after the content has been published. This is the epitome of a false good idea.