In France, the media are worried about press freedom | Europe | News and events from across the continent | DW

About a hundred people sit in a cafe in central Paris and watch a video that shows how journalists from Disclose, a new online medium, identified French tanks in local video footage of the Yemen war. One of the authors, investigative journalist Mathias Destal, explains why he and his team believe the government arms company Nexter supplied Saudi Arabia with weapons and tanks, which were then used against civilians in Yemen – and that the government knew about it.

The report does not only shock the public. It also sparked a strong reaction from the French government, which filed a complaint against the journalist for revealing state secrets; the report is based on classified documents. Destal and two other Disclose journalists were questioned by the secret services.

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“We were greeted by two policewomen who took us four floors below ground level to an interrogation room – it was quite intimidating,” he said.

Interrogators had many questions about Disclose’s editorial policy, how it is funded, and whether Destal understood what the term “state secret” means.

“One of my colleagues was even asked about some of his posts on Twitter and Facebook that are unrelated to this report,” he said.

Mathias Destal (left) and his colleagues angered the government with their report on French weapons in the war in Yemen

Only one question concerned the journalists’ sources, which made Destal think it was primarily an attempt to scare him.

“As a journalist, you are normally sued for libel in a special court. But in this case, investigators do not seem to question the accuracy of what we wrote. And the investigation is not being conducted by independent judges but by the Attorney General who is, at least formally, under the authority of the Ministry of Justice, “he said.

Destal could go to jail for five years and face a fine of up to € 75,000 ($ 85,400).

And Disclose is not the only media targeted by the government. The secret services interviewed eight journalists from various publications as well as the director general of The world newspaper over the past three months on the history of weapons in Yemen and on the so-called Benalla affair, concerning Alexandre Benalla, a former senior presidential official who allegedly overstepped his authority.

“An attack on investigative journalism”

Pauline Ades-Mevel, spokesperson for the Parisian NGO Reporters Without Borders, says the events add to an attack on investigative journalism. “The fact that the secret service is questioning journalists is a problem, but it becomes a huge problem when a lot of journalists are questioned in such a short time,” she said.

Read more: Global press freedom threatened, according to Reporters Without Borders

She explained that court cases cost journalists time and resources, which they could not then devote to further investigations. She added that it was also likely to scare off potential sources and have a chilling effect on other investigative journalists: “They will think twice before investigating certain stories.”

Pauline Ades-Mevel at the Reporters Without Borders office in Paris

Pauline Ades-Mevel says authorities’ treatment of investigative journalists has a chilling effect on their colleagues

In addition, the accusations are part of a broader context, explains Jean-Marie Charon, media specialist and researcher at EHESS, Paris university. He thinks that France is backing down in terms of press freedom.

“There have been quite a few laws in recent years that strengthen the counterterrorism arsenal and also protect trade secrets. These laws increasingly restrict the way journalists can work,” he said. declared.

“Areas Journalists Should Not Cover”

He added that journalists had also been targeted during the recent “yellow vest” protests, protests that were first sparked by a new fuel tax and then turned into a revolt against the political elite.

“The police beat journalists or took away or damaged their equipment in 105 cases. All of this – the charges, the new laws and the crackdown on journalists – sends the message that there are areas journalists simply shouldn’t cover, ”Charon said.

Jean-Marie Charon in Paris

Sociologist Jean-Marie Charon sees France backing down on press freedom

Past French governments have often had difficult relations with the media. Charon thinks Emmanuel Macron is worse than some of his predecessors.

Macron seems to believe that the press must be controlled. At various points he came out like a know-it-all, telling reporters how to do their job and saying that the media reports a lot of things but not the most important, “he said.

Define a state secret

But Raphaël Gauvain, MP for Macron’s party, denies that journalists are being excessively targeted.

“We’re not trying to muzzle the press at all. It is quite normal to conduct investigations when state secrets have come to light. The secret service conducted the interrogation, yes, but they are responding to the prosecutor and not to the justice minister, “he said.

Raphael Gauvain

Raphaël Gauvain, member of Macron’s party, says government is doing nothing wrong by questioning journalists

“We have to trust our democracy and our justice system that works. The latter will ultimately decide what comes first – our state secrets or freedom of the press,” he said.

Media researcher Charon, however, says the government is broadening the definition of state secrets: “I can understand the term being used to protect the lives of soldiers, for example in Mali. But here it would only help the government save face. This is not how it should be. “

Journalist Destal, meanwhile, is adamant that he will continue his investigative work – now even more than before.

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