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Europe

Eye on France: Whatever you say, say nothing

media A march marking World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2018, in Nakuru, Kenya. ©Suleiman MBATIAH / AFP

There were further police hearings in the course of Wednesday, this time involving a reporter from the daily newspaper Le Monde. Today, left-leaning Libération devotes its cover story to the situation with the headline “Macron puts pressure on the press”.

Yesterday it was the turn of Ariane Chemin of Le Monde. She’s the ninth media professional recently called in to answer questions.

The police are interested in the source of certain information in an article she published in February on the so-called Benalla affair, in which she revealed, among other significant facts, that a certain Chokri Wakrim, partner of the former head of prime ministerial security, was a member of the élite military special units, the army equivalent of James Bond and the boys.

The law quite reasonably protects the identity of such people, since they have been, or are likely to be, involved in operations against dangerous people and organisations who might decide to take revenge if they knew who to target.

Chokri’s position seems to have been a bit special, since his job officially involved looking after the special unit's cash flow as an accountant while, at the same time, giving boxing lessons to the rest of the tough guys.

He does, however, appear to have been covered by article 413-14 of the Penal Code, which dates from 2016 and has never, to date, been enforced. Were she to be found guilty of having maliciously revealed the identity of a state employee with special status, Ariane Chemin could be fined 5,000 euros and go to jail for five years.

In today’s Le Monde, Ariane describes her 45-minute interrogation with professional detachment and aplomb.

“Are you aware,” asked the steely-eyed policewoman, as the pair sat, head-to-head, in the fourth sub-basement of the Internal Security headquarters, “that you are not here in connection with an article on the Benalla affair?”

The sound of silence

Ariane said nothing, either because she was shocked into silence or because the question passed her like a Serena Williams service. The article was, afterall, headlined “Benalla affair: prime minister’s office tries to limit the damage”.

And she kept on saying nothing.

She was called as a free witness and was therefore allowed to remain silent at all times and to leave whenever she wished.

Silence continued to dominate on the Le Monde side, Ariane Chemin trying not to stare at the handcuffs hanging on a nail just beside the police officer.

The official line of questioning was simple: had the journalist checked that her information was correct? How had she done that? To whom had she spoken? Ariane exercised to the full her legal right to say nothing. And that went on for three-quarters of an hour.

Le Monde’s editorial director, Louis Dreyfus, was next into the hot seat.

More of the same . . . police question met by journalistic blanks. For just 15 minutes this time. The woman with the handcuffs had clearly lost the key.

It's all, of course, a bit of a game.

Nobody remotely expected that two senior journalists would betray their professional obligations by identifying a confidential source.

The whole exercise was, according to Mr Dreyfus, simply intended to intimidate.

All journalists are equal . . .

It ended with a nice touch of irony from the police officer when she remarked on Le Monde’s shocked reaction to the police summons, given that the boys and girls in blue have been hauling journos in two a day for several days now. Le Monde was less excited, the officer wryly suggested, about the fate of the seven colleagues from the TV programme “Quotidien”, or the news website Disclose.

The folk at left-leaning Libération are far from amused. Today’s editorial in Libé is headlined “Freedom” and it warns that, if governments wish to, they can use existing legislation to conceal certain embarrassing facts. The French authorities could, for example, have hushed up the Benalla affair, or the sale and ultimate destination of weapons to Saudi Arabia, or the sinking by a French secret agent of a Greenpeace vessel in a foreign harbour.

There are clearly people doing the dangerous job of keeping the rest of us safe, and they deserve legal protection, as well as our thanks and respect.

But we also have the right to be informed about the actions of those who govern us. A difficult balance which the Macron administration may, suggests Libé, have tilted too far in favour of the rulers.

Don't be surprised if a few of the colleagues from Libération are the next to be hauled in for a talk.

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