France: Codex aims to stop police violence against journalists

By Jane Whyatt

Words cannot deflect a blow from a police officer’s baton or soothe away the sting of tear gas. They cannot heal a wound from a Flash-Ball riot control missile. But perhaps they can start a process that will make those painful experiences disappear forever.

At least, that was the aim of launching the Press Freedom Police Codex in Paris on 22 January 2020, amid an escalation of violence against journalists by the police in France. The Codex was produced after intensive research by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) together with partner organisations. Read it here

France: Codex aims to stop police violence against journalists Pablo Aiquel of the SNJ-CGT explains the Press Freedom Police Code at a press conference in Paris. Photo: ECPMF

The French capital has seen many journalists, bloggers and camera crews suffer injuries as they attempt to cover demonstrations in the general strike against pensions reform and actions by the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) right-wing populist movement. 

Just how many journalists have experienced violence in the hands of police: this was the subject of a heated argument during discussions at the launch. Dozens, according to independent photographer Jean Segura from the La Meute(The Pack) collective and Taha Bouhafs of La-bas si j’y suis (Over there if I’m there)a satirical website and community radio station that just celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. Both Bouhafs and Segura were recently detained in police cells overnight after separate altercations during demonstrations. 

Thirteen is the number of cases currently supported by Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) , the Paris-based global media freedom campaign. Their representative Pauline Ades-Mevel took part in the Code launch.

The police perspective

The European Confederation of Police (EuroCOP) Belgium’s representative, Peter Smets stressed that officers on the ground often do not know the difference between journalists and activists.  Referring to the disagreement on the number of cases, he remarked that if even the journalists cannot agree who is a real journalist, and who has really been injured, then it must be very difficult for police to identify them! He argued that whether a troublemaker is a media worker or an ordinary citizen, a certain minimum amount of violence may be needed to “stabilise” the suspect. 

Guide for journalists on how to deal with police

Police violence against journalists prompted the French trade union Le Syndicat national des journalistes(SNJ-CGT) to produce a Guide for its members and others. It sets out how to behave if police try to prevent them from doing their work. SNJ-CGT's President Dominique Pradalié shared that, “Journalists have been deliberately targeted, they’ve been hurt, injured, had their press cards taken away. Their professional equipment’s been smashed or confiscated, their protective gear’s been torn off or damaged. We were obliged to produce the Guide to the rights of journalists in relation to the forces of law and order.”  

Incidents like these do not only happen in Paris but also in provincial towns: Emma Audrey of the Besancon-based Bip Radio and news portal described how she had filmed police violence at a demonstration. Other media also witnessed it but chose not to publish the footage. This led to her being accused of faking it, and she had to fight a legal process.

France: Codex aims to stop police violence against journalists The French language version of the Press Freedom Police Code. Photo: ECPMF

At the European level, verified cases of police attacking journalists are logged on the Mapping Media Freedom (MMF) map and  the Council of Europe Platform for the Safety and Protection of Journalists.

ECPMF runs the MMF platforms and  is a member of the COE platform. ECPMF took the opportunity of the launch to introduce these monitoring initiatives to the meeting, as the background to the formation of the Police Codex. France, Greece and Spain have a track record of police violence and there is a Europe-wide lack of mutual trust which means that media workers do not get the protection they need.

The eight points of the Police Code reflect this situation. Presenting them, Pablo Aiquel of SNJ-CGT stressed that this is not an exhaustive list, but a starting point for dialogue with police.

It prompted responses, point by point, from the EuroCOP representative Peter Smets, who underlined that police should not be identified by name in press reports, for fear of reprisals against them and their families. This has actually happened in at least one case, Smets said. He also questioned the need for photojournalists to film arrests, saying it interferes with the police officer’s work and makes it more difficult. Journalists have the same rights as all citizens, Smets maintained. 

Journalists are more than just ordinary citizens

But this was immediately challenged by Aiquel and several speakers on the panel. Journalists have in addition to citizens’ rights a duty to ensure that other citizens receive quality information and so they play a special role in a democratic society, which must be respected. It is equally important to respect the journalists’ right to keep their sources confidential, for without this, no-one will trust them and the supply of information from witnesses and whistleblowers will dry up. The Press Freedom Police Code aims to resole misunderstandings such as these. Indeed, its Point #8 holds strongly the training for police officers in the rights and responsibilities of journalists in a democracy, and regular updates.

Progress in some places

Still, there are some positive signs of progress. Renate Schroeder, Director of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)told the launch meeting: 

It’s so important to start a dialogue between journalists and police so as to better understand each other’s roles. I have a few examples that prove it is possible: in the Netherlands, an agreement has been signed between journalists, police and the Minister of Justice and there have been initiatives too in Sweden, Spain and Germany.”

Schroeder proposed a special international mission to France, in order to examine the causes of extreme tension between media workers and the forces of law and order. As the strikes and demonstrations against pension reform continue across France, it seems that now is the time for a rapid response. The tensions that flared in the meeting room reflect the stress that is also apparent on the streets. While it is be difficult to calm them and to create a meaningful dialogue, it is imperative that we continue to try and keep at it. Hence the significance of the Codex, that all sides are in contact and are willing to talk.


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Source information: This article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom –