France: unparalleled attacks on press freedom

On 7 January 2015 two Islamists forced their way into the editorial offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed twelve people. In the fight against terrorism France has tightened its surveillance laws, a measure with potential consequences also for journalists.

Commemorating the victims of the terrorist attack (© picture-alliance/dpa)
Commemorating the victims of the terrorist attack (© picture-alliance/dpa)
Observers described the brutal attacks as the "9/11 of press freedom". Before the attack Charlie Hebdo had had a small circulation of around 60,000 copies, whereas the first issue after the attack sold seven million copies in France and twenty-five other countries.

France responded to the violence by tightening its surveillance laws. In order to monitor “critical foreign-policy interests” and “defend against attacks on institutions of the Republic” the secret service is now permitted to store Internet data taken directly from providers. But observers fear that the vague terminology used in the regulations may allow the surveillance to be extended to political activists and journalists.

Yet press freedom has a long tradition in France: the first newspaper, called Strassburger Relationen, appeared in the seventeenth century. During the French Revolution the number of newspapers rose to 1,000. In 1881 press freedom was enshrined in the constitution. France is also home to the world's first news agency, Agence France Presse, founded in 1835.

Television plays a central role in public debate, in particular the 8pm news of the private broadcaster TF1 and the public station France 2. If a French president wants to address the nation he appears on France 2. France has one of the largest numbers of radio stations in the world, currently around 900. The public station Radio France broadcasts news and cultural and regional programmes.

France has a broad spectrum of print media. The national newspapers with the most readers are Le Parisien, Le Figaro and Le Monde. Some regional newspapers, such as Ouest-France, reach a good deal more readers, however. Although many papers are struggling with declining circulation figures, recent years have seen the arrival of new newspapers such as Mediapart, L’Opinion, Causeur and Les Jours. Many of these new papers offer a substantial platform for an exchange of opinions. French newspapers are also increasingly courting readers outside the country. In 2016 the Catholic newspaper La Croix launched an English-language site and Charlie Hebdo a German edition.

Since it is customary in France to combine economic and political interests with journalistic activities, the independence of the French media leaves something to be desired. Most of the media are owned by wealthy business people or industrialists, such as construction entrepreneur Martin Bouygues or Serge Dassault, the owner of a arms manufacturer.

In July 2013 a court in Versailles ordered the investigative news portal Mediapart to withdraw a report about a party donation scandal involving the billionaire Liliane Bettencourt. Bettencourt regarded the reports, based on conversations with her butler, as a violation of her private life. The recorded conversations helped to uncover the party donations affair involving Bettencourt and the conservative UMP party. Various media described the forced withdrawal of the reports as censorship. At the same time, a law passed in 2013 on protection of sources improved the position of journalists.

Press Freedom Rating:

Reporters Without Borders: 39th place (2017)
Freedom House: 51st place – status: free 2016)

Updated: May 2017
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