The fine was imposed because, in November 2016, Bloomberg briefly posted information taken from a hoax press release purporting to have been issued by the French construction group Vinci about its supposed financial problems. The false information, which other news outlets picked up and which caused a temporary fall in Vinci’s share price, was deleted by the news agency after a few minutes.
Vinci filed a complaint with the AMF, which responded by imposing the unprecedented 5-million euro fine on Bloomberg on 16 December under the European Union’s Market Abuse Regulation (MAR). The source of the hoax press release was never identified.
“We condemn this fine, which violates press freedom and imposes an enormous financial risk on newsrooms and journalists covering the stock markets,” said Paul Coppin, the head of RSF’s legal affairs department.“It is dangerous that a government agency should assume the right to punish journalistic mistakes. RSF, which will intervene in the appeal, asks the judge to quash the AMF decision and to try Bloomberg under France’s 1881 press law, which must continue to be the only law governing the press in France.”
Fear of dual legislation
France’s media legislation, which is based on the 1881 press law and European Court of Human Rights rulings, clearly defines what constitutes a press offence and sets very clear and restrictive rules for lawsuits and penalties. This legislation favours the targets of legal action and explicitly aims to preserve freedom of expression on the grounds that this freedom is particularly important. As the European Court of Human Rights has ruled, “freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of [a democratic] society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every man.” It has also often referred to “the vital public-watchdog role of the press.”
If a media outlet is judged under legislation other than the press law and is fined an extraordinarily large sum – much more than it would receive under the press law, for a mistake made in good faith in the normal course of its work, and was quickly corrected – it could open the door to two forms of legal treatment for press cases, one under the protective press law for general news, and another under the Market Abuse Regulation for financial and market news, with the latter bringing the risk of very heavy fines.
Such a duality could lead to media outlets regarding business news as more “sensitive” and giving it minimal coverage, which would violate the public’s right to news and information about the economy.
It would also be incomprehensible because the European Commission gave assurances to journalists when the Market Abuse Directive (the Market Abuse Regulation’s predecessor) was adopted in 2002: “Journalists who in good faith receive and pass on inaccurate information will not risk any punitive measures under the Directive” (24 October 2002 press release). The European authorities have never backtracked on these assurances.
Concern about a government agency setting rules for journalists
The Market Abuse Regulation states that, when a media outlet is being sanctioned, account should be taken of its behaviour with the regard to the “rules or codes governing the journalist profession.” But this illegitimate and totally confused provision fails to specify how this should be done.
News organizations have adopted internal codes of conduct and media unions have published sets of journalistic principles, but these texts are not binding on the entire journalistic profession and do not constitute legislation. As such, the AMF cannot use these codes as the basis for judging a media outlet. It is unacceptable that the AMF should allow itself to take such a decision and assume the right to determine, case by case, what it considers to be good journalistic practices.
RSF urges the Paris Court of Appeal to quash the AMF’s decision on the grounds that a media outlet should be judged only in the light of the principles of press law.
France is ranked 32nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.