A full-frontal attack on citizen journalism
March 08, 2007
The newly approved French law, which makes it illegal for non-accredited journalists to film or broadcast acts of violence, is a full-frontal assault on citizen journalism, writes Roy Greenslade. And rightly so.
Even if we presume that this assault on citizen journalism is nothing but an unintended consequence of a law whose professed intention is to clamp down on public order offences, introducing 'a distinction between professional journalists, allowed to disseminate images of violence, and ordinary citizens', is very troubling, as noted in this press release from Reporters Without Borders:
"In the field of human rights, it is citizen journalists and not professional journalists who have been responsible for the most reliable reports and information – the information that has most upset the government. Reporters Without Borders thinks it would be shocking if this kind of activity, which constitutes a safeguard against abuses of authority, were to be criminalized in a democratic country."
At its best, citizen journalism is an important, some would say invaluable, correction and supplement to mainstream media coverage. It broadens the picture. We all know how easy it is for MSM to get stuck talking to the same heads all the time, how the constant deadline race means we rely too much on newswires and don't find the time to do enough independent reporting.
Besides, sometimes MSM simply don't get to the scene first, or they can't get there at all, which I'm sure was part of the rationale for the recent deal between Reuters and Flickr. What if the French riots were to be reignited, and we, in this day and age, would only be allowed to see footage filmed by accredited journalists. If all French bloggers, podcasters, vodcasters, and even those snapping a picture with their mobile phone camera and sending it to a relative, could be put on trial or fined for publishing footage from the frontlines. How bizarre, troubling, surreal....
Then of course, there is the issue of standards, as raised in this recent debate. How can we force citizen journalists to abide by certain standards in terms of ethics, liability etc ? Short answer, you can't. Not unless you're going to publish a piece by a citizen journalist and you're vetting the material he or she provides, at least one would hope any responsible publisher would, take it for granted even.
Not acceptable. But this will probably end up as a law with no real meaning. With todays technology it will be almost impossible to enforce a law like this.
More disturbing is the fact that there is a climate for such a law even to be suggested.
Posted by: Genese | March 08, 2007 at 07:01 PM
Yes, it's scary isn't it, that someone could phrase a law against public order offenses like this, and the French Constitutional Council approving it. If they only were worried about public order offences, they could have phrased it differently, presuming that exact unambigous wording is important when chiseling out a nation's laws, which will determine the outcome of many future court cases.
As you say, it's a difficult law to enforce with today's technology, but what with big media organisations, e.g like the Reuters/ Flickr deal? No big media organisation could be seen to break or ignore a nation's laws, unless French legislators would state that it was a symbolic law, or should only applied to specific situations, thereby admitting that they didn't know what they were doing by phrasing the law so broadly.
Posted by: Kristine | March 08, 2007 at 08:24 PM
From various accounts I have read, most politicians do not read the legislations that they pass into law. The writing and reading is done by party chiefs or in many cases, political aides.
I suppose many of the politicians thought this was a law against the public offenses, not knowing what it was actually intended for.
With more public outrage, it is possible that the draconian parts of the law could be reversed.
Posted by: Krishna Kumar | March 08, 2007 at 10:28 PM
Well, France's Interior Ministry has defended the law, saying courts will be able to distinguish btwn whistleblowers and criminals (http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2007-03-08-france_N.htm?POE=NEWISVA courtesy of Loic LeMeur's del.icio.us links http://del.icio.us/loiclemeur?page=1 )
That still doesn't explain why they phrased it the way they did, and still doesn't prevent future court cases where you have citzen journalists put on trial because it serves some higher purpose, now that the text of the law allows for it....
Posted by: Kristine | March 08, 2007 at 10:44 PM
The exact phrase:
One could try the key phrase in English as: "...resulting from the usual practice of a profession, having as its object the delivery of information to the public..."
"Profession" in English is neither connatively nor denotatively the same as > in French-- I mean the words are not quite the same in meaning formally or informally, explicitly or implicitly, and in both legal contexts (English common law vs. civil), there is need for substantive definition of the term before it can have meaning...
(In the US this is a "due process" consideration: you can't say something does or doesn't apply to "professionals" without enumerating who you are or aren't talking about...).
I'm no expert on the French/continental context, but there's nothing in the phrasing (which is parallel to references to the professions in the rest of the Articles) to suggest it meant to separate the citizen practice of journalism.
Which is hardly to say the legislation might not be used, to cite a classic French example, against a(n incidental) videographer who caught police violence against protesters. Power is power, and La France is France... and any legislation like this opens the possibility of abuse when truth must confront power.
So perhaps what we should be concerned with, is not the incidental assault on citizen journalism in this legislation, but the general assault on freedom of expression and action.
Posted by: Kenneth Thomas | March 09, 2007 at 06:30 AM
So much for accent marks:
the French text:
Le présent article n’est pas applicable lorsque l’enregistrement ou la diffusion résulte de l’exercice normal d’une profession ayant pour objet d’informer le public ou est réalisé afin de servir de preuve en justice.
Posted by: Kenneth Thomas | March 09, 2007 at 06:32 AM
Many thanks for these comments. I must admit my French would not have been good enought to examine this in detail, so this is very enlightening and useful. What you say here doesn't make me less worried about this law, however...
Posted by: Kristine | March 09, 2007 at 09:52 AM