Paris (Brussels Morning) Protests have taken place in several cities across France against a new security bill considered a curtailment of basic civil rights and media freedom.
Initially based on a parliamentary report on security, which aimed to strengthen the framework of police prerogatives and the context of private security, the bill was brought to parliament for discussion in the National Assembly last week.
But strong criticism emerged early on, primarily over proposed measures allowing police to use camera-equipped drones and easier access to CCTV footage.
Central to the controversy is Article 24 of the bill, which would make it illegal to disseminate images of police forces with the “intention to harm their physical or mental integrity”, leading to a government review of the controversial article.
Division and protests
Despite an amendment protecting the right to inform, the bill was passed, in part, on Friday at the National Assembly by 146 to 24 votes. However, as RFi reports, only 182 of the Assembly’s 577 MPs took part in the ballot, while even MPs from the majority abstained, saying they were “ill at ease” with the new law.
The final vote is expected early this week. If the law passes, it will make the publishing of images of on-duty officers punishable with up to one year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros.
Thousands went out to protest in several cities across the country over the weekend, while some clashes and arrests took place in Paris, at the Place du Trocadero where more than 5,000 people gathered. Placards featured slogans such as “Orwell was right”, “Blurred police, blind justice” or “Say cheese” as Franceinfo reported.
In a press conference bringing together media, unions and NGOs, Liberation quoted a representative of the French National Union of Journalists questioning: “How are we going to ask Poland and Hungary to respect the rule of law when in France we are doing everything to undermine it?”
Political parties, unions, journalists’ associations and civil society have accused the government of “liberticide”.
During the debate, Interior minister Gerald Darmanin was quoted by RFi as saying that “the balance is reaffirmed between freedom to inform and protection of police officers”. However, for the France Insoumise party, led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, the balance between police and citizens has been “broken”.
In a tribune under the title “Mister President, we didn’t vote for this”, published by the website Mediapart, 30 civil society members, including academics, artists and jurists, called on Emmanuel Macron to stop the “authoritarian turn” they fear for the country.
They warn that this would only strengthen the far-right’s positions: “an authoritarian state where the rule of law becomes a police state, criminalizing the social mobilisation and certain popular demands”.
Media across the spectrum have raised concerns over the legislation with editorial staff highlighting the impact on their democratic right. “To film police violence means to defend civic rights”, according to LeMonde staff.
“We are worried about the slow decline of the rule of law, which seems to lead to a police state”, said Arie Alimi, member of the national office of the League of Human Rights.
Chris Myant, head of the National Union of Journalists in France, said: “This is one of the most dangerous pieces of legislation in respect of press freedom ever offered in a major democracy”.
Critics of the bill also include international organisations such as Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and the UN.
According to France24 reports, the UN Human Rights Council called on French parliamentarians to review the bill as it “could discourage, even punish those who could supply elements of potential human rights violations by law enforcement, and provide a sort of immunity”.
France’s human rights auditor has also warned of “considerable risks” from the new law, saying it “must not impede on freedom of the press, nor on freedom of information”.
International media hit out saying the bill undermined recent declarations by Emmanuel Macron to protect the freedom of expression and thus present himself as a global advocate of the press freedom.
Thomas Hochmann, professor of public law at the University of Paris Nanterre, told Al Jazeera: “It constitutes a serious infringement of freedom of expression. There will be great reluctance [for the public and journalists] to disseminate images or even to film.”
French law enforcement has been targeted in recent attacks, which the bill aims to contain. But as the Guardian notes, they have also been criticised for using rubber bullets, water cannons and teargas against the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) demonstrations, since late 2018.