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France: Citizen Journalism Under Attack
Law forbids filming violence for all but professional reporters
Claire Ulrich (briconcela)     Print Article 
Published 2007-03-08 13:22 (KST)   
Macworld and other English-language media are abuzz with reports of a new French law that threatens those who tape and broadcast videos of "scenes of violence" with up to five years in prison if they cannot prove they are professional journalists.

In theory, the law forbids French citizen journalists or French citizens at large from filming crime scenes or violent incidents -- including police brutalities, one gathers -- and from sending the video via mobile phone or uploading it to the Internet. What an outrageous bit of news!

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Not surprisingly, this law was cooked up by the office of Nicolas Sarkozy, who is running for president in this year's elections but is still in office at the Ministere de l'Interieur, the French Home Office. Sarkozy doesn't seem to be wasting a second of his last days as "the first policeman of France."

You would expect that screaming French citizens would be setting fire to the parliament by now. Not at all. The French people are not aware that the French Constitutional Council passed this law on March 5. Traditional media has not even alluded to it yet. A search on the French blogosphere retrieved just one post Wednesday, by ODEBI (in French), a small organization advocating freedom of speech on the Internet. Why hasn't this news shocked France? Context is all.

Here are a few rapid-fire reasons for this surprising lack of concern:

France lives right now under the spell of the presidential election, with every second of media attention eaten up by the contenders. Blogging is hugely popular in France, but the concept of citizen journalism is not understood over here, save for a few sophisticated news geeks. French citizens have grown indifferent to their legislative bulimia nervosa, with laws, decrees and amendments being churned out wholesale everyday from every law-making institution. Citizens usually wait to see if the judges use it to protest (or oppose it).

The statue of the Republic, in Paris: obviously blind to the age of the Internet...
©2007 Claire Ulrich
Were they aware of it, the majority of French parents would approve of this new law because it was presented in parliament as a solution to the "happy slapping" problem. Those infamous videos of youngsters beating each other up, sent over mobile phones, led to shocking incidents involving children in France. The general lack of reaction can also be explained by the fact that this particular law was bundled in a set of laws designed to "fight juvenile crime." What is raising concern among teachers, social workers and doctors, right now, is another aspect of this law package: their new obligation to hand over confidential information on juvenile offenders to the police or mayors. The video ban slipped by unnoticed.

I am aware how shocking this new law sounds from abroad. It should only be ridiculed. To believe, just for a second, that a national law will be able to stop user-generated videos of any kind at the borders of the French Internet is ludicrous and laughable. Unless -- and this is a worrying thought -- a future government votes the means to enforce it, with cyber-police to keep French "vidcasts" under a tight log-on-and-upload watch.

Another ridiculous aspect of the law is how it grants the right to broadcast violent news footage to professional journalists only. In the eyes of French law, being a "professional journalist" has nothing to do with training, achievements or ethics. Their status was written down in...1935! It states that you are a professional journalist and entitled to a press card as long you are on the monthly payroll of a registered publishing or TV company. (The status of online journalists is still debated.) Reporters, cameramen and writers employed by the worst French tabloids or "trash TV" are journalists because they cash a monthly check. Technically, freelancers, however honest, professional and brilliant, are not.

Reporters sans frontieres (RSF, Reporters Without Borders), a very active French NGO that advocates for journalists and citizen journalists, is now at work to raise awareness in France on the consequences of this new law on freedom of expression.

Their real concern -- and mine -- is the growing trend under this government to enact clumsy, vague and potentially dangerous laws under noble disguises such as the "fight against violence" or to "protect children from pornography." RSF is equally worried by another law proposal, designed this time to "protect youth." If it passes, a national committee (chosen by whom?) will be allowed to grant "quality stars" to information Web sites based on their "ethics!" What exactly is "quality" in information?

Another lively debate in sight...Please, don't mind us. We are French. Keep the videos coming. See you on YouTube.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Claire Ulrich

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