French news channel’s journalists on strike for editorial independence

France’s political leaders and the agency that is supposed to guarantee the freedom of its broadcast media seem unable to respond to the deepening conflict between Vincent Bolloré, the billionaire owner of the French 24-hour TV news channel iTélé, and iTélé’s journalists, who are fighting for editorial independence.

The channel’s journalists have been on strike for the past three weeks in what is now the second-longest stoppage in the broadcast sector since May 1968.

It was triggered by the appointment of a presenter, Jean-Marc Morandini, who is the subject of a judicial investigation on suspicion of “aggravated corruption of a minor.” But the underlying cause is the large number of lay-offs in recent months and a series of conflicts between journalists and management.

After overhauling almost the entire management of the Canal+ media group, of which iTélé is a component, Bolloré has been waging a battle with its editorial staff since the summer of 2015. Bolloré’s media and entertainment conglomerate Vivendi has been the Canal+ group’s sole owner since late 2013.

After planning for a while to scrap Canal+’s very popular satirical puppet show “Les Guignols de l’Info,” Bolloré turned his attention to news and current affairs, censoring a “Special Investigation” report on French bank Crédit Mutuel in September 2015 and dropping the “Special Investigation” series altogether a few months later.

Canal+’s daily news programmes and an irreverent highlights programme called “Le Zapping” were also soon dropped.

The latest battleground has been the conflict between iTélé’s journalists and Serge Nedjar, a close associate of Bolloré who was appointed not only as iTélé’s CEO but also its news director.

As well as Morandini’s departure, the strikers are demanding the appointment of a separate news director, the adoption of a code of ethics and, more broadly, the adoption of a “clear and precise” strategic and editorial project.

The French government and political class are saying very little about the strike on the grounds that iTélé is privately owned, although the conflict could set a precedent leading to other attacks on media independence in France.

Unions and staff are accusing iTélé of violating several obligations under its agreement with the Higher Council for Broadcasting (CSA) – which regulates the French broadcast media – above all by allowing its owners to meddle in editorial content and to mix news with entertainment.

So far, the CSA has simply issued a warning that it would “pay close attention” to ensure there is “no confusion between news and entertainment” or, in other words, that iTélé continues to be a news channel serving “the viewer interest.” But the warning has had no effect and no follow-up.

What are Bolloré’s intentions and what is his strategy with iTélé? Does he want to turn it into an “infotainment” channel that promotes the Vivendi group’s other activities? Or does he just want to get rid of it?

In solidarity with iTélé’s journalists, RSF is inviting the general public to sign a petition for the creation of safeguards for the news channel’s editorial independence.

Addressing a full meeting of iTélé’s journalistic staff on 4 November, RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said: “The battle you are waging is essential, it is the battle of the entire media profession. All over the world, oligarchs are buying up news media. And when it’s not a personal whim, their aim is to put these media in the service of their business interests.”

France is ranked 45th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 09.11.2016