New French law banning images of police triggers concerns about civil rights, protests

The French parliament voted to approve a controversial law on Friday that will ban the publication of images of police officers on duty and extend the use of surveillance drones and police powers. Journalist groups, human rights activists and trade unions – including Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International’s French branch – organized protests in Paris and other French cities on Saturday.

Article 24 of France’s new security proposal would make it a criminal offense for anyone to disseminate images that could ‘harm the physical or mental integrity of police officers’. People who have been found guilty can be punished with one year in prison or a fine of up to 45,000 euros.

Critics of the bill say it threatens to make it more difficult for journalists and others to report on police brutality or other violations, with journalists’ groups, human rights activists and trade unions organizing protests in French cities.

In the face of a backlash, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin tried to calm public fears in comments to parliament on Friday. Journalists and the general public can still “film and broadcast” pictures of police officers even “without being blurred,” he said. It is only when the images are shared with comments “intended to harm” or encourage violence that they would fall wrong with the new law.

Media organizations criticized Darmanin for telling a news conference on Wednesday that journalists covering protests or demonstrations should inform authorities in advance to “avoid confusion” if police are forced to respond to violence.

Alice Thourot, Member of Parliament for President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) party and co-author of the controversial clause, also sought to allay concerns.

“The bill does not in any way jeopardize the right of journalists or ordinary citizens to inform the public,” Thourot told the French daily Le Figaro, adding that it only “bans all claims of violence or reprisals against police on social media.”

Members of the Riksdag are scheduled to vote on the bill as a whole on Tuesday. It then goes to the Senate, the upper house of France.

In response to allegations that Article 24 would have unintended consequences for press freedom, the government added an amendment before Friday’s vote stating that the clause “will not be an obstacle to the right to inform the public”. The crime described in the text “is only aimed at the dissemination of images that are clearly intended to harm the physical or mental integrity of a police officer or soldier”, the amendment states.

But the section of the article has raised eyebrows, which comes as it does after a summer of mass political protests against police brutality and accusations of systemic racism.

Activists have claimed that police brutality was responsible for the killing of Adama Traoré, a Frenchman of Malian origin who died after his arrest in the suburbs of Paris in 2016. An autopsy on behalf of his family said he died of suffocation. In the official health report released in June, he said he died of heart failure, thereby removing three police officers from responsibility.

Several cases of alleged police violence were revealed by videos posted on social media. Cédric Chouviat, a delivery driver in Paris, suffered a heart attack and died in January after police put him in a chokehold. Several protesters with yellow vests were blindfolded inside a Burger King in Paris in December 2018. Pictures from both events originally appeared on social media, which led to general outrage.

“A freedom-killing law”?

Anne-Sophie Simpère, an activist for Amnesty International France, said the change was not enough and that the government should withdraw Article 24 in its entirety.

“It is a freedom-killing law that threatens freedom of expression, the right to demonstrate and the right to privacy,” she said.

France’s official rights ombudsman, Claire Hédon, also said Article 24 should be withdrawn, describing it as “unnecessary”. She added that several other clauses in the text “probably infringe on human rights”, including the right to privacy.

Article 22 of the security proposal would allow the police to have more scope for the use of surveillance drones. Simpère said that drones can now be used in more circumstances that are not subject to regulation. The development of face recognition technology “raises further concerns”, she said, adding that drones should only be used “if there is a legitimate need and a clear goal”.

Changes to ban the use of face recognition technology in drones were rejected on Friday morning.

Mr Thourot spoke to Parliament, pointing out that there is currently no “legal framework” governing the use of drones. Article 22 allows them to be used only by security forces for purposes including “terrorist prevention”, she said.

Another clause in the security proposal would give local police new powers, including the ability to register minor offenses as traffic offenses and to perform identity checks. At present, only the national police have these powers.

The Security Bill would also reform the rules for the private security sector, especially ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France and the Paris Olympics in 2024. It aims in particular to “drastically reduce” the number of subcontractors in the industry to address what Thourot has called ” Uberization “of the industry. The legislation would encourage the employment of retired police officers by allowing them to combine their pensions with salaries from security work.

In addition, the bill would allow the transmission of recordings from police body cameras so that videos from social media of police officers could be cross-referenced with them. Supporters of the proposed legislation say that police videos posted on social media are often truncated and often present documents from officers without the necessary context.

Stanislas Gaudon, head of the Alliance’s Police Federation, told Jowharthat such images would help protect police officers who perform their duties.

“We hope to use imagery in these cases to show the truth about what happened” when there are allegations of misconduct by police, he said.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.