RSF files joint complaint with two French journalists who were threatened by gendarmes, forced to delete video
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has filed a joint complaint with two French journalists working for the Swiss public broadcaster, Radio-Télévision Suisse (RTS), who were threatened by gendarmes and forced to delete video footage after filming an interview near the Tricastin nuclear power plant in southern France’s Drôme department on 15 September.
“Delete your videos,” “if you publish, we’ll know it” and “journalism will be over for you” were among the threats used by six members of France’s militarised police force, the gendarmerie, say journalists Adeline Percept and Thomas Chantepie, who accuse them of "obstruction to freedom of expression" and “intentional violence” in the complaint filed jointly with RTS and RSF.
The incident took place on the bank of the Donzère-Mondragon canal near the power station, which is located close to the River Rhône in the municipality of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux. The journalists had just finished filming an interview with a regional councillor about the condition of the river for the RTS evening news programme when six gendarmes suddenly surrounded them.
The gendarmes ordered the journalists to delete their video footage on the grounds that they had no right to film there. Although the journalists were not located within the perimeter of the nuclear site and were on a public road, the gendarmes insisted that prior permission was needed to film “anywhere you can see the power plant.” Under pressure, the journalists complied and deleted their video.
Serious press freedom violation
The journalists were so shocked by this behaviour and by the threats made against them that they even doubted that the persons involved were real gendarmes. However, when contacted by RSF, the gendarmerie press department confirmed on 11 October that “the control had indeed been carried out by gendarmes (...) specialising in the protection of sensitive sites and sites of vital interest that are the national centres of electricity production.”
Not convinced by the gendarmerie’s explanations, RSF decided to join the journalists and RTS in filing a complaint on the grounds that this threatening behaviour constituted a serious obstruction of journalistic freedoms. Filed by the Vigo law firm with the Paris judicial court public prosecutor on 7 November, the lawsuit accuses the gendarmerie of obstructing freedom of expression and “intentional violence.”
“This case constitutes a serious abuse of authority by the gendarmerie, who don’t have the power to force journalists to delete images before they are published or broadcast. The threats made by the gendarmes and their intimidating behaviour constitute an additional aggravation of this act of censorship and are symptomatic of the climate of intimidation currently plaguing journalism in France. We have filed a complaint together with the journalists and their media outlet, and we call on the prosecutor’s office to conduct an investigation with a view to bringing criminal proceedings.
According to the gendarmerie, the incident was just an “identity check (...) justified by the parking of their vehicle in an area prohibited by inter-departmental prefectural decree and mentioned as such.” However, the GPS recording of the journalists’ vehicle shows that they were parked in a shopping centre parking lot. Furthermore, the gendarmes did not mention any parking violation during their intervention. They referred only to a ban on filming the nuclear power plant.
Force, arrest threats
The gendarmerie also claimed that the agents "informed the persons being checked about the sensitivity of the location, as well as the regulations concerning filming at such sites.” But Percept and Chantepie say the gendarmes were unable to specify what offence had been committed, or in what way filming the nuclear power plant was prohibited.
Finally, the gendarmerie denied forcing the journalists to delete their images and claimed that “if [video footage] was deleted during this intervention, this was not the result of a direct action by the gendarmes, but as a result of a conversation between the camera operator and the soldiers about security at the site.”
However, the journalists insist that they were forced and were threatened with arrest. They say they were told: “We are going to take you to the station for a procedure, it will take a lot of time.” They were told: “If you do not comply, you will be blacklisted and you will no longer be able to enter anywhere with your press card. Journalism will be over.” And they were told: “If you publish we will know.”
The complaint is being filed at a time of widespread intimidation of journalists in France. This year has been marked by threats to the confidentiality of journalists’ sources, judicial harassment, circumvention of media rights and police violence against reporters during protests. In the past four years, RSF has filed a total of 22 complaints in France over press freedom violations of this kind.
France is ranked 24th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2023 World Press Freedom Index.