RSF welcomes bills defending editorial independence in French media outlets

Two new bills in France are proposing concrete legislative mechanisms for preserving editorial independence against meddling by media owners, a need currently highlighted by the crisis at the Sunday newspaper Journal du Dimanche (JDD). Reporters Without Borders (RSF) welcomes these two initiatives, one by a group of deputies from several parties and the other by Socialist Party senators.

JDD’s journalists have been on strike for the past 28 days, ever since learning that Geoffroy Le Jeune, the controversial former editor of the magazine Valeurs Actuelles, was to become their editor. as a result of French billionaire businessman Vincent Bolloré’s takeover of Lagardère, the media group that owns their newspaper.

Accompanied by a number of deputies and representatives of press freedom groups including RSF, JDD journalists gathered outside the National Assembly on 19 July, coinciding with the submission of the bill by a group of deputies containing specific legislative proposals for avoiding meltdowns of the kind currently taking place at JDD.

This multi-party proposal aims to establish a “right of approval.” It says that, for any print or online media outlet to be able to qualify for state aid, or for any broadcast media to be able to qualify for the use of public broadcast frequencies, “any appointment of a director or editorial director must be subject to a vote of approval by the journalists employed by the media.” The bill that the Socialist Party senators submitted to the Senate on 12 July also gives journalistic staff a “right of veto” over the appointment of their director. It says the proposed new director must receive 60% of the votes of at least 50% of the members of the editorial staff.

“We are pleased to see legislators trying to respond to attacks on editorial independence in the media, and to preserve honest reporting and ethical journalism. These legislative proposals with concrete measures are good initiatives. They show that Vincent Bolloré's ascendancy over JDD and the Lagardère group's media has had an electrifying effect leading to strong multi-party proposals to prevent such a situation from recurring, regardless of who the media owner is.

Christophe Deloire
RSF secretary-general

The bill submitted to the National Assembly bureau today – drafted on the initiative of Sophie Taillé-Polian, the “Generations” representative for Val-de-Marne, and supported by deputies from eight parliamentary groups – says a “right of approval” is needed because of an increase in "attacks on the independence of the media" by owners “who refuse to limit themselves to playing an economic role in the media they buy, but want to play an increasingly political role in them, even if it means exerting pressure that limits the staff’s editorial independence and journalists’ freedom of conscience.”

As an example, the bill points to the situation at JDD, where “an owner can impose an editorial director at the head of a newspaper against the opinion of 99% of the journalists he employs.” The participants in this legislative proposal attended the evening event that RSF organised in support of JDD’s editorial staff on 27 June. Several deputies – Clémentine Autain (France Unbowed), Violette Spillebout (Renaissance) and Laurent Esquenet-Goxes (Modem) – spoke at the event, at which they first became aware of the possibility of a historic multiparty agreement.

David Assouline, the Socialist Party senator responsible for the senatorial bill, also attended the 27 June event. He said: “A media is not a company like any other. It is a company that produces a public good, news and information. This is why journalists must have special protections allowing them to inform us in complete freedom.”

A right of approval or a right of veto is a way to prevent a new or existing owner from transforming a media’s editorial line without any consultation. It amounts to conferring collective rights on its journalists, its human capital, that reinforce their existing individual rights (conscience clause and transfer clause). To go further and reinforce guarantees of respect for the editorial independence of editorial staff even more, additional measures could be included in this bill or in a bill with a greater scope, one drawn up within framework of the National Conference on Information. RSF will publish its detailed recommendations soon.

The multiparty bill is due to be examined in the National Assembly in October. The one proposed by the Socialist Party senators will receive a first reading by the Senate’s culture and education committee after the summer break.

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