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Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the Press 2017

France

Profile

Press Freedom Status: 
Free
Image Graph showing the Selected Country Flag

Freedom of the Press Scores

(0=Most Free, 100=Least Free)

Quick Facts

Population: 
64,600,000
Internet Penetration Rate: 
84.7%

Key Developments in 2016:

  • A new law strengthening core aspects of media freedom was approved by the parliament in October, though a section of it that bolstered journalists’ right to protect their sources was later struck down.
  • Staff at the television channels Canal+ and iTélé came into conflict with their parent company, Canal+ Group, after experiencing pressure to abandon critical reporting on the business interests of Canal+ Group’s owner. Such pressure was linked to the cancelation of Spécial Investigation, a Canal+ program, in June.
  • Several journalists were physically assaulted by protesters and police while covering demonstrations against reforms to France’s labor code.

Executive Summary

France has a strong tradition of independent journalism and a generally free media environment. However, in recent years, defamation cases, intrusive new security laws, and editorial pressure on journalists by owners have contributed to concerns about decreasing media freedom.

A long-running battle between Vincent Bolloré, a French business magnate and media owner, and the journalists employed by his outlets intensified during 2016. At the Canal+ channel, which is owned by Bolloré’s Canal+ Group, the Spécial Investigation program was cancelled in June; it had aired reports critical of Bolloré’s businesses. In October, journalists at Canal+ Group’s iTélé news channel went on strike for several weeks in protest of editorial pressure.

Also in October, France adopted a new law that enhanced the editorial independence of media outlets by offering reporters certain protections from pressure exerted by owners and managers. The law also bolstered journalists’ right to protect their sources, but that provision was struck down by the Constitutional Court in November.

In 2016, protests against reforms to the French labor code took place on numerous occasions, and journalists covering the events were attacked by both police and demonstrators. On one occasion, a journalist was prevented from covering such a demonstration under a provision of the state of emergency that was issued in late 2015 following a large-scale terrorist attack, and which remained in effect throughout 2016.

Deep unease among French journalists that followed the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack abated somewhat in 2016.

Legal Environment: 6 / 30                            

The constitution and governing institutions in France support an open media environment, although certain laws limit aspects of press freedom and freedom of expression in practice.

The penal code punishes efforts to justify war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as incitement to discrimination and violence. Holocaust denial is a crime under the 1990 Gayssot Act. The Law on Guidelines and Programming for the Performance of Internal Security allows websites suspected of containing child pornography to be blocked without a court order, and allows police to install or remove spyware under judicial oversight.

A counterterrorism law adopted in 2014 came under fire for ambiguous provisions that could limit free speech, especially online. It removed the criminal offenses of publicly inciting or glorifying terrorism from the 1881 press law and added them to the criminal code; accordingly, those broadly defined crimes can be punished with up to seven years in prison and a €100,000 ($110,000) fine if committed online. When committed offline, the offenses can draw penalties of up to five years in prison and a €75,000 ($83,000) fine. The law also empowers authorities to compel internet service providers to block sites for glorifying terrorism, and to do so without a court order; it also allows police to use online monitoring and surveillance to detect violators. Between March 2015 and February 2016, 68 websites were blocked due to alleged terrorist sympathies, according to a report of the National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL), the body that oversees the law’s implementation.

In November 2015, Paris suffered a large-scale terrorist attack by the Islamic State (IS) militant group that resulted in the deaths of 130 people. The government imposed a 12-day state of emergency, and the National Assembly then adopted legislation extending it for three months, with a provision authorizing the government to block internet communications that enable terrorist acts, among other emergency powers. The state of emergency was renewed multiple times in 2016, and remained in effect throughout the year. In December, it was extended for seven months.

Strict defamation laws impose fines on those found guilty, and are sometimes invoked in order to intimidate journalists. In 2013, a provision of the press code that mandated a €45,000 ($50,000) fine for insulting the president was repealed after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that it violated freedom of expression. However, the repeal did not affect a provision—which remained in place in 2016—that applies the same penalty to defamation of public officials. Bolloré Group, a French transportation company, has invoked defamation laws in response to media criticism. In April 2016, a Paris court dismissed a lawsuit brought by the company against the online news portal Bastamag, which had published a report alleging that the Bolloré Group had engaged in corrupt business practices in Africa and Asia. In July, the Bolloré Group sued the public television channel France 2 after it aired a critical documentary on the company’s activities in Africa. In November, the group’s Cameroonian subsidiary also brought a suit against France 2 over the same documentary.

In October 2016, a new media freedom law designed to better insulate journalists from editorial pressure was promulgated. Its provisions included a “right of opposition” by which journalists may refuse to undertake an action imposed on them by their employer that violates ethical standards for journalists. The law also strengthened journalists’ ability to protect their sources, mandating that their identities could only be revealed under “exceptional circumstances” and with prior judicial authorization. However, the Constitutional Court struck that provision in November.

Although existing laws guarantee access to information, access rights hinge on the protection of a third party’s reputation, and requests for information are sometimes denied. A bill passed in October 2016 includes a mandate that most national, provincial, and local state bodies publish their official documents and data online.

France’s regulatory body for electronic media, the High Audiovisual Council (CSA), was granted greater independence under a 2013 law. The president of France appoints the president of the council.

Recently approved laws have raised some concerns about the potential for the legally sanctioned surveillance of journalists and others. A 2013 programming law gives extensive rights to government agencies to monitor the internet and phone usage of French citizens in real time. The law requires no judicial supervision and provides for broad grounds on which to justify surveillance of an individual. In the aftermath of the January 2015 terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, the government pushed through an intelligence bill that was widely criticized by press freedom groups for giving authorities greater power to carry out intrusive surveillance without a court order, including mass surveillance of mobile phones and personal internet data. The legislation was adopted by the parliament in May 2015 and approved by the Constitutional Council that July. The rights group Legal Press Association has appealed the law to the ECHR, whose decision was pending at the end of 2016.

Political Environment: 13 / 40 (↑2)

France’s media are robust and express a wide range of opinions. However, editorial pressure from media owners remains an issue. In June 2016, the private television channel Canal+ announced the cancelation of its Spécial Investigation program, under apparent pressure from Vincent Bolloré, the businessman who owns its parent company, Canal+ Group. The cancellation came in the wake of a long-running dispute between Canal+ staff and Canal+ Group management, which had pressured journalists to modify material that was critical of Bolloré’s business interests. In October, journalists at the 24-hour news channel iTélé, also part of the Canal+ Group, went on strike for several weeks, demanding greater editorial independence after having experienced similar pressure from Bolloré.

Separately, in April, then deputy National Assembly speaker Denis Baupin tried to prevent the news website Mediapart from publishing accusations that he had sexually harassed female colleagues by threatening the outlet with legal action. His threats were unsuccessful, and the exposé led to his resignation in May.

Ongoing economic pressures on the industry as well as pressure from media owners have encouraged some self-censorship in recent years.

Journalists occasionally face restrictions, physical interference, and violence while reporting in the field. Protests against a reform of the French labor code took place on numerous occasions in 2016, and journalists covering the events were attacked by both police and demonstrators. In May, journalists covering protests in multiple cities were targeted by police, with several reporting beatings and the use of tear gas. The number of complaints by journalists led some observers to speculate that people with press armbands had been specifically targeted. Several reporters were assaulted by demonstrators at protests against the labor reforms that took place in April and October. In May, one journalist was prevented from covering a demonstration against the reforms in Paris, after authorities accused him of planning to take part in violent action at the demonstration; he was banned from the protest site under provisions of the state of emergency that was active throughout the year.

Separately, in August, Zaman France, a Turkish-language newspaper based in Paris, was forced to shut down after receiving hundreds of threats from supporters of the Turkish government, of which the publication was critical. Mediapart is routinely denied access to events held by the far-right National Front.

Economic Environment: 7 / 30                     

France has a vibrant media environment, with a variety of print, broadcast, and online outlets in operation. Television stations include the three main national public channels as well as a number of private stations. Private radio stations flourish, while the public broadcaster Radio France is also popular. There are more than 50 daily newspapers, most of which are privately owned. Private print and broadcast media outlets are frequently owned by companies with close ties to prominent politicians and defense contractors. Nearly 85 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2016.

The state provides both direct and indirect subsidies to the press, including assistance with the costs of distribution, and controls the prices of newspapers. Bribery of journalists is not considered a widespread problem in the French media.