France: RSF asks Canal+ ethics committee to look at censorship

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) asks the ethics committee at French pay TV channel Canal+ to quickly take up the case of a report critical of Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé that was removed from the TV channel's online platform shortly after being broadcast, while two senior staff members were removed from their posts.

Canal+ employees suspect another "case of censorship" at the behest of the channel's ultimate owner, French billionaire Vincent Bolloré, who has close ties with President Gnassingbé and whose business conglomerate, the Bolloré group, has extensive interests in Togo.

Entitled "Lâche le Trône" (Relinquish the Throne) and broadcast on 15 October as part of the Canal+ weekly current affairs programme "L’Effet Papillon" (Butterfly Effect), the 10-minute report was about the recent months of protests in Togo against Gnassingbé's desire to run for a fourth term.

Nearly two months after the report's mysterious disappearance from the Canal+ replay library for subscribers, from its website and from YouTube, the TV channel's management has still not provided employees with any explanation.

Two senior employees – a woman in charge of programming and François Deplanck, Canal+ International director for channels and content – have meanwhile been removed. According to the 81st episode of "L’Empire," a series about Bolloré's control of Canal+ on the independent French news website Les Jours, they were fired "for broadcasting a report with no errors aside from the error of being set in the boss's playground."

In late November, RSF tried without success to contact the Canal+ management and public relations department to ask about the code of conduct and ethics committee that media outlets are supposed to establish under the 2016 "Bloche Law" in order to help journalists defend media freedom and independence.

"Why hasn't this case been referred to the Canal+ ethics committee and when will it?" RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire asked.

"Sadly, this is not the first time a documentary or report approved by the channel's editorial staff has later been dropped by management because it might upset the main shareholder's business partners. We ask the ethics committee to quickly take up this case and to ensure that the Bolloré group's interests are not undermining the independence of the media outlet it operates."

Ethics committee and code of conduct

According to the information obtained by RSF, the Canal+ management notified France’s High Council for Broadcasting (CSA) by letter that an ethics committee was set up in September although a terse press release on 7 December was the first time the channel's employees were officially told of its existence.

Under the Bloche Law, a media outlet's ethics committee can be "contacted or consulted at any time by the governing bodies (...) or by any other person." So the "case of censorship" that the Canal+ employees' committee denounced on 23 November could have been referred to the ethics committee, and should have been, but the employees didn't know it existed.

Coincidentally or not, it was also on 7 December that a meeting of a new staff journalists' association (formed just three days before) was hastily convened at CNews – a 24-hour TV news channel that is a Canal+ subsidiary – to "approve and ratify the Canal+ group's code of conduct."

"Totally Orwellian" is how Raphaël Garrigos of Les Jours describes this code of conduct, which should in theory have been approved no later than September. It provides much less protection that the code of conduct drafted by the staff journalists' association in 2016, which was categorically rejected by the management.

Paralysing directives

Vincent Bolloré has never hidden his desire to influence content at Canal+ and the other media outlets owned by the Bolloré group's entertainment subsidiary, Vivendi. Two years ago, a few months after the Canal+ management censored a report about Crédit Mutuel, a bank run by one of his friends, the Canal+ works council report of 3 September 2015 noted that the boss told employees that "attacking [French bank] BNP, [French bank] LCL or the building's owner would be stupid."

A source told RSF that "this order from the top was interpreted by the management as meaning staff should not target the group's current or future partners." But minutes of meetings with personnel representatives show that the management refused or was unable to list the "friends" who should be spared in order "to avoid misunderstandings or confusion."

"In practice, this situation paralyzes us, it immobilizes all the journalists," a Canal+ source said. "We are in the realm of the arbitrary."

The existing editorial restrictions at Canal+ have clearly become even tighter since the Togo report even if no instruction to this effect has circulated within the channel or the production house that makes "L’Effet Papillon." Speaking on condition on anonymity, a contact told RSF: "The staff at Canal+ have understood that from now on we don't talk about the rich, banks or Africa."

What is off limits is now clear, but the message was already transmitted in other ways in the past ­– by blocking the Crédit Mutuel report, by removing programmes that were too irreverent (“Zapping”) or too critical (“Spécial Investigation”) or by applying pressure to deter coverage of Africa, where Vincent Bolloré has so many business interests.

Bolloré also has a history of suing media outlets that criticize his industrial group's activities in Africa. In the past, he has sued France Inter, Bastamag, France 2 and Rue 89. And he is currently suing the weekly L’Obs and its reporter Jean-Baptiste Naudet over an article mentioning suspicions that the Bolloré group used dubious methods to secure the contract for Abidjan's second container terminal. A court should have begun hearing the case this week but it was postponed because of the plaintiff's "unavailability."

France is ranked 39th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 18.12.2017