French security bill proposes to outlaw dissemination of ‘malicious’ images of police

·3-min read

A new French security bill proposes to forbid the dissemination for “malicious purposes” of images of police officers doing their jobs. Supporters of the legislation say it would protect officers from malevolent personal attacks using social media. Detractors say it threatens to make it harder for journalists and NGOs to report on police wrongdoing.

Article 24 of France’s new security bill would create a new criminal offence – punishable with one year in prison and a €45,000 fine – in the dissemination of images aimed at “harming the physical or mental integrity” of police officers.

This clause was first proposed by Jean-Michel Fauvergue, an MP for President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) party, after police union Alliance had long lobbied for it.

Current legislation on cyberbulling does not provide sufficient protection for the police, said Stanislas Gaudon, the head of Alliance: “The problem with those laws is that they can only be applied when the video is already online, but it’s too late, the damage is already done.”

Gaudon said the new text should have gone further by making it “compulsory to blur police officers’ faces” in any videos diffused. MPs backing the bill emphasise that it is intended to cover only “malicious” actions.

“The purpose is to forbid any calls for violence or reprisals against officers and their families in videos broadcast over social media,” LREM MP Alice Thourot told France Inter radio.

However, some critics of the proposed new law claim that it could have unintended consequences. On November 8, some 30 members of France’s Society of Journalists published an open letter denouncing what they regard as a “threat to the freedom to report”.

In an another open letter, some 800 filmmakers and photographers argued that the proposed law is tantamount to “censorship”, saying that – if it had been in place at that point – a notable documentary on police violence, “Un pays qui se tient sage” (“A Wise Country”) filmed during the 2018-19 Yellow Vest protests and riots, and could not have been broadcast.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, has said that if it passes the law the French government would be violating the UN’s 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects freedom of expression.

“The bill is not precise enough,” said Cécile Coudriou, head of Amnesty France. “The notion of ‘malicious intentions’ is too broad. It doesn’t conform to the standards of international law.”

Claire Hédon, the state’s human rights ombudsman, said the “publication of images relating to police is necessary for democratic functioning”.

Critics of the proposed law have pointed to examples of police violence that have been broadcast via social media. A recent example is the death of Cédric Chouviat, a delivery driver in Paris who suffered a heart attack and died after police put him in a chokehold in January. Another example of police violence that footage played on social media brought to light is the bludgeoning of Yellow Vest demonstrators inside a Burger King in Paris in December 2018.

In such cases videos relayed on social media have been used in journalistic and criminal investigations into police violence.

In addition to this clause, the bill would also allow the diffusion of recordings from police body cameras so that social media videos of police officers could be cross-referenced with them. Supporters of the proposed legislation say that videos of police posted on social media are often truncated and frequently present officers’ actions out of context.

“We hope to use image body cameras in these instances to show the truth about what happened” when there are claims of improper behaviour by police officers, Gaudon said.

On the other hand, Coudriou argued that the proposed legislation would be “dangerous” because it would “imply that the government is encouraging a culture of impunity”. The security bill will be examined as a whole by France’s National Assembly from November 17 to 20.

This article has been translated from the original in French.