September 2, 2011 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Can journalists freely investigate government and its allies?

Reporters Without Borders today voiced concern and dismay at open death threats made against journalist Fabrice Arfi, who works for the French online newspaper Mediapart, and said it was the latest sign of a “extremely worrying trend” among elements tied to the French government. It demanded that such abuses be punished. The threats were revealed yesterday, as a legal enquiry confirmed that state security officials had spied on journalists of the daily Le Monde in connection with the Bettencourt bribery scandal the paper is investigating. “Spying on journalists, suspicious burglaries and now death threats are unacceptable practices that look like they are coming to be seen by the authorities as legitimate ways to fight against investigative journalism,” the worldwide press freedom organisation said. “This is the first time for many years, to our knowledge, that a journalist in France has complained of death threats.” Arfi filed a complaint with the Paris prosecutor’s office on 31 August after death threats were made against him. He is involved in a sensitive investigation into armed attacks in Karachi and began getting vague text-messages on 2 July, just before the appearance of his first article (co-authored by Karl Laske) about arms dealer Ziad Takieddine. The messages came from the mobile phone of Pierre Sellier, founder and chief of the economic intelligence firm Salamandre, which is close to arms and counter-espionage circles and has several contracts with the French president’s office. When Laske rang Sellier on 5 July, Sellier said he would “do Arfi in, I’ll smash him, I’ll beat him to a pulp, I’ll kill him, I’ll put three bullets in his head.” Despite these apparently impulsive remarks, Mediapart notes that such behaviour by Sellier is common and that in 2009 he had hounded journalists when they published reports on ties between the Karachi attacks and secret funding of former French prime minister Edouard Balladur‘s campaign for the French presidency in 1995. Reporters Without Borders said it was especially worried about signs of growing and serious intolerance in government circles of investigative journalists, notably in the bribery scandal involving billionairess Liliane Bettencourt and former budget minister Eric Woerth. Interior minister Claude Guéant confirmed on 1 September that the French domestic intelligence service (DCRI) had conducted “surveillance” of phone calls, which he said was quite different from “phone-tapping.” Le Monde reported that the current investigation into “violating secrecy of journalistic sources” had unearthed two faxes sent by the DCRI to the mobile phone company Orange asking on 19 July for detailed billing records of journalist Gérard Davet and then two days later for those of David Sénat, a justice ministry technical adviser suspected of being the paper’s source. Reporters Without Borders said this “confirms our worries that just a few months after the new law to protect secrecy of journalistic sources was adopted it was being deliberately trampled on by the French intelligence services, not for national security reasons but to protect top government officials from embarrassing revelations. Contrary to what their lawyers have said, the authorities have spied on a journalist’s phone records to discover his sources in a blatant violation of their confidentiality. “We are glad legal officials are finally making progress in this investigation,” it said, “but this makes it all the more urgent to amend the law on secrecy of sources adopted in January 2010 to clearly define exceptions to it and spell out penalties for violations. What is the point of a law that is broken with impunity when a government minister is involved? “The ability to discuss sensitive issues involving the government and its allies is vital to investigative journalism and the Woerth-Bettencourt scandal and the handling of Arfi’s legal complaint are tests of it. We have arrived at a serious juncture and the law must punish these intimidatory practices unworthy of a democracy before they become routine,” Reporters Without Borders said.