November 15, 2019

As online harassment trial opens in France, RSF proposes tougher legislation

Julie Hainaut / Credit May Lopez
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has registered as an interested civil party in the trial of one of the persons who harassed French freelance journalist Julie Hainaut online. This case and the weakness of the French judicial system’s response to cyber-harassment have highlighted the need to reinforce France’s law on online hate, for which RSF has specific proposals.

Based in Lyon, Hainaut has had to spend two years and bring a total of five complaints for insult, defamation, harassment and inciting violence – most of them shelved after very little investigation – to get to the point where one of her online assailants is finally going to be tried on a charge of aggravated public insult. The trial is due to open in Lyon on 19 November.


RSF has registered as an interested party in the case in order to press its call for more prosecutions of those who harass journalists online and to draw attention to the glaring flaws in the judicial system’s response to online harassment, including the lack of training for police and judges and the lack of specialized units.


A proposal to reinforce the law on online harassment is currently before the French parliament, and RSF takes this opportunity to press parliamentarians to impose much tougher criminal penalties.


Tougher penalties for online hate


Submitted by the parliamentarian Laetitia Avia, a bill “aiming to combat hate-filled content on the Internet” was adopted by the national assembly on 9 July and is due to be examined by the senate in December. It aims above all to make online platforms much more accountable and proposes several mechanisms for giving their users better protection against online hate and harassment.


RSF welcomes the plan to make platforms more accountable but combatting online harassment will also need a better response from the police and judicial system to complaints and, in this respect, the bill has little to offer. It says nothing about reinforcing penalties for online harassment, about procedures for received and treating complaints, or about special training for judges and police officers.


The scant attention paid by the police who took Hainaut’s complaints and the lack of energy with which her complaints were investigated demonstrate the need to inform, educate and train the police and judges who handle such cases.


RSF nonetheless notes one interesting innovation: the proposed creation of a special prosecutor’s office for combatting online hate. The Hainaut case has highlighted the urgency of the need to have judges dedicated solely to investigating and prosecuting cases of online hate.


A single, Paris-based special prosecutor’s office would nonetheless be too remote for citizens in other parts of the country. A better solution would be to create specialized inter-regional jurisdictions (JIRS) for digital offences. Attached to provincial high courts, they would be staffed by judges who only handle cyber-harassment cases and have specially allocated resources.


Exceptionally violent harassment of Hainaut


Hainault has been the target of an exceptionally virulent online campaign of hate and harassment for the past two years, ever since 13 September 2017, when she reported in Le Petit Bulletin, a Lyon cultural weekly, that the owners of a new cocktail bar had made approving statements about the colonial era.


Shortly after the hate-filled messages began, Hainault filed her first complaint about being the target of public insults, defamation and incitement to violence. A judicial investigation was opened in July 2018, was closed, and was reopened in early 2019. But very little real investigating was ever carried out.


Hainaut filed five complaints in all, but the police investigators do not seem to have taken impact of the threats on her very seriously and she was never questioned by either them or the judges to whom the case was referred. It was only after the fifth complaint, filed in April 2019, that the police registered the case as “cyber-harassment.” But this complaint was also closed without further action.


Because it regards the imminent trial as a first step towards justice, RSF has registered as an interested party along with the National Union of Journalists (SNJ). The defendant is the person who shared the first insulting post about Hainaut on Facebook and who must be held to account for the comments he shared.


However, the person who started the campaign against Hainaut, an individual who is well known in far-right social media circles, is reported to be in self-imposed exile in Japan and has never been questioned or arrested in connection with this case.


He has nonetheless been convicted several times in France on charges that include inciting racial hatred.  He is currently the subject of a wanted notice and an Interpol red notice, but no request for his arrest has been sent to Tokyo.

Ranked 32nd out of 180 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, France should ensure that this person is tried and convicted.