Although the figures compiled by RSF are still provisional, the scale of the abuses is unprecedented. At least 54 journalists have been injured by the police – 12 seriously – in 120 incidents registered by RSF’s staff since the first yellow vest protest on 17 November 2018. These are all incidents involving journalists whose professional status RSF has been able to verify. More than 30 other incidents reported on social networks are still being checked.
At least 42 journalists sustained minor injuries, including bruising from baton blows or flashball rounds fired at their legs, and burns from stun grenades. Twelve sustained serious injuries including hand fractures, broken ribs and facial injuries. The photographer Nicolas Descottes was off work for 40 days because of the flashball round that shattered his cheekbone and “miraculously spared” his eye.
RSF regards 88 of the 120 registered incidents as “major.” This category includes incidents in which journalists were injured, their equipment was deliberately destroyed, or they were subjected to intense intimidation, and incidents in which journalists clearly identified as members of the “press” were targeted with water canon or flashball rounds, or were forcibly driven back by means of riot shields or tear-gas. Cases in which photographers were taken into police custody were also included. Insults, verbal threats and confiscation of material were treated as minor incidents.
Unwanted photos and video
Photographers and video reporters pay the highest price: 66% of the journalists who have been the victims of police violence are photographers and 21% are cameramen or video reporters. These high percentages are not due solely to the fact that they have to expose themselves more in order to get their story. “You see at least one example of police regulations being violated at every protest,” said a journalist who broadcasts the demonstrations live on Facebook. “Arrests are sometimes carried out in a very violent manner and it’s not surprising that they want to prevent us from filming that.”
Aside from the deliberate intention to prevent certain actions from being photographed or filmed, many of the incidents are due to a “failure to differentiate” between protesters and journalists. In Toulouse, several journalists have reported that police on motorcycles “indiscriminately beat everyone they find in their path,” as one put it. “The police may sometimes be unable to distinguish between the regular ‘yellow vest’ protesters and those who are bent on violence, but we are clearly identified and we are usually in a different location,” another reporter said. Like many other reporters, he also said that the traditional police units, including the riot police, behave very differently from the anti-crime units (BAC) that began being assigned to the protests in December, who are not crowd-control professionals.
One of the last photos that Descottes took before being badly injured by a flashball round during the “yellow vest” protests in Paris on 8 December shows a member of the anti-crime police taking aim at him. Anti-crime police were in the area when Stéphane Perrier, a journalist who has been covering protests for TF1, CNews and Télénantes for 20 years, was hit in the groin by a flashball round last weekend while he and his two bodyguards were “calmly walking” at a considerable distance from the protesters and “felt completely safe, to the point that we had removed out goggles and helmets.”
“The abnormally high number of injured journalists and the unprecedented scale of the police violence and incidents cannot be attributed solely to this protest movement’s unusual duration,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “The time for observing is over and the time for action has arrived, as President Emmanuel Macron has said. Clear instructions must urgently be given to the police in order to allow journalists to work safely and avoid violence.”
Complaints that go nowhere
Amazingly, although they know that the police are deliberately targeting them, few journalists file complaints. Fewer than 20 complaints have been filed with the police general inspectorate (IGPN). Rémy Buisine, who has covered all the protests for the news website Brut, has been the victim of six major incidents but has never considered initiating proceedings. He says this may be due to “a tendency to minimize what happened to me because I’ve seen much worse” and because, like many other journalists, he assumes his complaints will go nowhere.
The fate of the few complaints that have been filed seems to confirm this assumption. When Descottes recently emailed the police officer who had registered his complaint, he received this laconic reply: “Your case is no longer in my portfolio.” David Dufresne, a journalist who has reported dozens of incidents to the interior ministry via social networks and the Allô Place Beauvau website, has never received any response. “Nor a denial,” he adds.
The police violence has a significant impact on the journalists concerned. It is not just badly injured photographers who have had to spend time off work. Many journalists with experience of war zones say covering the “yellow vest” protests in Paris, Toulouse or Nantes is as stressful as war reporting. “Some photographers are so stressed that they prefer to turn down a commission and take a break,” said Wilfrid Estève, the head of Studio Hans Lucas, a platform used by more than 500 freelance photographers.
“The stress is not just physical,” he added. “Some are traumatized by the terrible injuries they photograph, including limbs ripped off and eyes blinded.” Those who continue to cover the weekly protests have had to adapt and to adopt the kind of behaviour used in hostile terrain. They must constantly monitor the length and degree of their exposure. And, above all, they must always take protective equipment and bear in mind that, as one said, “our press cards no longer protect us but at least allow us to keep our protective equipment.”
France is ranked 32nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.