In April, investigative website Disclose and its partners obtained and published a classified military intelligence document detailing the locations of tanks, artillery and ships sold to Saudi Arabia and deployed to the conflict in Yemen.
The following week, domestic intelligence agency DGSI opened an investigation into “compromise of national defence secrecy” and summoned the website’s founders Geoffroy Livolsi and Mathias Destal, as well as Benoît Collombat of Radio France, to a hearing this Tuesday and Wednesday.
Seventeen rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights, released a letter on Monday warning that press freedom was under attack.
The inquiry was “an unacceptable attack on press freedom and the protection of journalists’ sources,” said the letter.
It said Disclose had revealed information that was “of essential public interest” and urged France’s interior, army and foreign ministries to “cease intimidation against the press and respect the secrecy of sources”.
An online petition of support for the journalists, begun by a Yemeni reporter, had gathered more than 48,000 signatures as the hearing was to begin on Tuesday.
Arms sales to Gulf states
The 15-page dossier published by Disclose was dated last 25 September and contains inventories and deployment locations of weapons produced and sold France and other Western powers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The two Gulf States are part of a coalition that has led a bloody campaign against Iran-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen.
Some 10,000 people have died in the conflict and millions have been forced to the brink of starvation in what the United Nations has called “one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world”.
Paris is often criticised for its arms sales to Gulf States but has repeatedly insisted that as far as it was aware, the arms were only used in defensive circumstances.
French President Emmanuel Macron defended arms sales to the two Gulf powers last Thursday as the French government confirmed a new shipment of arms was being prepared for Riyadh.