France is ranked 39th in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, six places higher than a year ago, although the situation of its journalists is far from being any better. In fact, the past year in France has been marked by repeated attacks on the media during the presidential election campaign, a tendency for media ownership to become ever more concentrated, and more conflicts of interest threatening editorial independence.
France’s rise in the Index is attributable solely to a “bounce-back” effect after its sharp fall following the 2015 massacre at the Paris-based satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. It has recovered the position it had in 2014 and is now ranked just above the United Kingdom (down 2 at 40th) and the United States (down 2 at 43rd). It is far behind Germany (16th).
Exceptional violence during election campaign
The election campaign has seen attacks of unusual intensity on French journalists and media outlets. They were subjected to increasingly violent verbal abuse for several weeks by both politicians and members of the public. It included death threats against three media outlets – Mediapart, Le Canard Enchaîné and Le Journal du Dimanche – that had published damaging revelations.
“Criticism of the media in general and journalistic practices is obviously legitimate,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Unfortunately many political leaders have gone much further in making disgraceful and dangerous allegations that call into question media independence, freely exercised journalism and pluralism.”
The past year has also seen an increase in police violence against reporters that peaked during protests against the government’s labour reform law in April and May 2016. There were many examples of the freedom to inform being obstructed, all of them unworthy of a democracy. Videos showed that people filming or photographing demonstrations were deliberately beaten. Reporters said their press armbands turned them into targets instead of protecting them.
Journalists’ hopes were raised by a new law increasing protection for sources, which had been promised by President François Hollande. But the law’s protections were struck down by the Constitutional Council, which decided they were too restrictive. As a result, the legislation still in effect is the 2010 Dati Law, which falls far short of providing adequate protection. RSF deplored this setback and urged parliamentarians to quickly draft new legislation so that journalists’ sources could at last have proper legal protection in France.
Independence under attack
A handful of billionaires have tightened their grip on the French media, making certain press groups even more dependent on the centres of economic power. The threat of conflicts of interest has never been so great, undermining journalistic independence even more.
Billionaire businessman Vincent Bolloré has never hidden his intention to influence the editorial content of the media outlets owned by his company Vivendi. But the effects of high-handed management meddling on media independence were never so starkly illustrated as when his TV channel, Canal +, censored a report about Crédit Mutuel, a bank run by one of his friends, dropped an irreverent highlights programme called “Le Zapping” and finally also dropped its leading investigative reporting programme, “Spécial Investigation.”
Journalists at the 24-hour TV news channel iTélé (since replaced by CNews) staged the second-longest strike in the broadcasting sector since May 68 in a bid to defend their editorial independence and ethical journalism. But they were outgunned and the bitter dispute ended with the departure of around 100 of the channel’s employees.
“The concentration of most of the leading media in the hands of just a few owners is a more crucial issue than ever,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s European Union desk. “The next president must address the threats to editorial independence and must ensure that binding provisions are adopted in order to revive the public’s trust in those who provide them with news and information. Investigative and editorial journalism needs to able to be expand within the media, instead of being limited to the few outlets that have so far escaped the influence of the oligarchs.”
During the presidential campaign, RSF submitted five recommendations to the candidates and called on the future president to give a firm undertaking to ensure that the level of guarantees for media freedom and independence in France were those of a leading democracy.
The five recommendations:
- Combat the tendency for media ownership to be concentrated in ever fewer hands and ensure that media ownership is transparent.
- Ensure that a new law is adopted protecting the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.
- Combat abusive judicial proceedings against journalists.
- Adopt legislation penalizing insider influence on news coverage.
- Facilitate and extend the public’s right of access to state documents.
Published annually by RSF since 2002, the World Press Freedom Index measures the level of freedom available to journalists in 180 countries using the following criteria – pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative environment, transparency, infrastructure, and abuses.