French justice minister urged to let reporters be embedded with police

Since French justice minister Éric Dupond-Moretti says one of the chief aims of his newly-unveiled “Trust in the judiciary” bill is to make the judicial system more visible, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges him to include an article enabling reporters to be embedded with the police and judiciary.

Dupond-Moretti says the bill, which he presented to the cabinet on 14 April, aims to make the justice system more visible so that the public understands it better and trusts it more. One of its proposed measures, which has received a great deal of media attention, is for TV cameras to be allowed into the courtroom when it serves the “public interest”.

But there has been no mention of allowing journalists to do reporting while embedded with the police and judiciary, although RSF thinks this is extremely important. RSF calls for the inclusion of an article allowing certain aspects of police and judicial investigations to be filmed and televised as long the safety, privacy and presumption of innocence of the persons concerned and the confidentiality of the investigations is respected.

De facto ban

Reporters are currently banned from attending judicial searches or interrogations. The court of cassation (France’s highest appeal court) ruled in January 2019 that the presence of an outsider, “even if to describe what takes place with the aim of a informing the public,” constitutes a violation of the judicial investigation’s confidentiality and therefore nullifies the entire judicial procedure.

The effect of this ruling is to make it impossible for journalists to be embedded with police during their investigations and to broadcast the video footage required for this kind of reporting.

Address an inconsistency

“Justice minister, your ‘Trust in the judiciary’ bill lacks an article that allows journalists to work,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Legislators must create the conditions that make the right to information compatible with the rights protecting the person. You have said you want to ‘bring the justice system into people’s living rooms,’ but it would be inconsistent to propose changes allowing trials to be filmed and broadcast but not investigations. To make the justice system accessible and understandable, you must also show what is happening behind the scenes before the court hearings. The journalistic interest in this is undeniable but there is also and above all a democratic interest.”

Prior to the 2019 ruling, journalist Catherine Boullay spent three months embedded with a Paris police station for a report entitled “The complaints office” that was broadcast in the “Special Envoy” slot on France Télévisions in 2018. 

“The filming was carried out in such a way as to respect all those involved and to guarantee their anonymity,” Boullay said. “It helped millions of TV viewers to understand the work of the police and justice system. This educational approach is essential for understanding the society in which we live. And it proves that journalists can work constructively with state institutions. It would be a great pity if this were no longer possible.”

The presence of journalists at police and judicial investigations must be subject to the consent of the protagonists. Respect for the safety, privacy and presumption of innocence of the suspect or person being prosecuted is essential.

Consistent with ECHR jurisprudence

RSF’s proposal is consistent with decisions taken by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The court has stressed “the importance of the media’s role in the area of criminal justice” and has ruled that “the public have a legitimate interest in the provision and availability of information regarding criminal proceedings.” It has also said on several occasions that journalists’ freedom of expression “is subject to the proviso that they act in good faith in order to provide accurate and reliable information in accordance with the tenets of responsible journalism.” RSF shares this vision of responsible journalism and thinks its proposal accords with this need.

France is ranked 34th out of 180 countries in RSF's World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 22.04.2021