New French law banning police footage sparks civil rights concerns and protests

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                Le parlement français a voté vendredi l'approbation d'une loi controversée interdisant la publication d'images de policiers en service et élargissant l'utilisation des drones de surveillance et des pouvoirs de la police.  Des groupes de journalistes, des militants des droits humains et des syndicats - dont Reporters sans frontières et la branche française d'Amnesty International - ont organisé samedi des manifestations à Paris et dans d'autres villes françaises.
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                                    <p>L'article 24 du nouveau projet de loi français sur la sécurité érigerait en infraction pénale la diffusion d'images susceptibles de «porter atteinte à l'intégrité physique ou mentale» des policiers.  Les personnes reconnues coupables peuvent être punies d'un an de prison ou d'une amende pouvant aller jusqu'à 45 000 €.

Critics of the bill say it threatens to make it harder for journalists and others to report on police brutality or other offenses, with groups of journalists, human rights activists and unions organizing demonstrations in French cities.

Faced with a backlash, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin tried to allay public fears in comments to parliament on Friday. Journalists and members of the public can still “film and broadcast” images of police officers even “without blurring their faces,” he said. It was only when the images were shared with comments “intended to harm” or incite violence that they would fall against the new law.

Media organizations had criticized Darmanin for saying at a press conference on Wednesday that journalists covering protests or protests should notify authorities in advance to “avoid confusion” if police are forced to respond to violence.

Alice Thourot, a member of President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) party and co-author of the controversial clause, also tried to allay concerns.

“The bill will in no way jeopardize the rights of journalists or ordinary citizens to inform the public,” Thourot told French daily Le Figaro, adding that it “only prohibits calls for violence or reprisals against the police on social networks ”.

MPs are due to vote on the bill as a whole on Tuesday. He will then go to the Senate, the upper house of France.

In response to claims that Article 24 would have unintended consequences for press freedom, the government added an amendment ahead of Friday’s vote that the clause “will not interfere with the right to inform the public.” The offense described in the text “will only target the dissemination of images clearly aimed at harming the physical or psychological integrity of a police officer or a soldier”, indicates the amendment.

But the passage of the article raised eyebrows, after a summer of mass public protests against police brutality and accusations of systemic racism.

Activists alleged police brutality was responsible for the murder of Adama Traoré, a Frenchman of Malian descent who died after his arrest in the Paris suburbs in 2016. An autopsy ordered by his family said he died of asphyxiation . The official health report released in June said he died of heart failure, relieving three police officers of their responsibilities.

Several cases of alleged police violence were revealed by videos posted on social networks. Cédric Chouviat, a delivery driver in Paris, suffered a heart attack and died in January after police suffocated him. Several Yellow Vest protesters were clubbed inside a Burger King in Paris in December 2018. Images of the two incidents initially surfaced on social media, sparking public outrage.

“A law that kills freedom”?

Anne-Sophie Simpère, an activist for Amnesty International France, said the amendment was not enough and that the government should withdraw article 24 in its entirety.

“It is a law that kills freedom that would threaten freedom of expression, the right to protest and the right to privacy,” she said.

France’s official rights ombudsman, Claire Hédon, also said Article 24 should be withdrawn, calling it “unnecessary”. She added that several other clauses in the text were “likely to violate human rights”, including the right to privacy.

Clause 22 of the Security Bill would give the police greater latitude in the use of surveillance drones. Simpère said drones could now be used in more unregulated circumstances. The development of facial recognition technology “raises new concerns,” she said, adding that drones should only be used “if there is a legitimate need and a clear purpose.”

Amendments to ban the use of facial recognition technology in drones were rejected on Friday morning.

Speaking to Parliament, Thourot stressed that there is currently no “legal framework” regulating the use of drones. Article 22 will allow their use only by the security forces for purposes such as “prevention of terrorist acts”, she said.

Another provision of the Security Bill would give local police new powers, including the ability to register minor infractions such as traffic violations and to carry out identity checks. Currently, only the national police have these powers.

The security bill would also reform the regulation of the private security sector, in particular in anticipation of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France and the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. It aims in particular to “drastically reduce” the number of subcontractors in the industry to fight against what Thourot called the “uberisation” of industry. The legislation would encourage the employment of retired police officers by allowing them to combine their pensions with the wages of security workers.

In addition, the bill would allow recordings from police corps cameras to be broadcast so that social media videos of police officers can be crossed with them. Supporters of the bill say police videos posted on social media are often truncated and frequently feature officers’ actions without the necessary context.

Stanislas Gaudon, the head of the Alliance police union, told FRANCE 24 that such footage would help protect police officers in the line of duty.

“We hope to use body cameras in these cases to show the truth about what happened” when there are allegations of inappropriate behavior on the part of the police, he said.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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