Why the French ban on photos of police is a dangerous idea

In her monthly column in The Connexion, award-winning journalist Nabila Ramdani shares her views on controversial global security bill

26 November 2020
By Nabila Ramdani

These are very strange times across the world, and there is no doubt that they are going to get even stranger.

A good indication of this is some of the eccentric legislation currently passing through various parliaments around the world, and a bill that seeks to ban images of French police officers being published is one of the oddest.

The bill in question follows Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, the politician in charge of France’s domestic security, making the extraordinarily ambitious claim: “I had made a promise, that it would no longer be possible to broadcast the images of the police and gendarmes on social media. That promise will be kept.”

Any posting of photos or videos of an officer who can be recognised will be a criminal offence if there is an ‘intent to harm’

According to Clause 24 of the grandly named Global Security Bill, any posting of photos or videos of an officer who can be recognised will be a criminal offence if there is an ‘intent to harm’. The wording is vague, but the punishment is not: a year in prison and a €45,000 fine.

There are numerous civil rights issues to be considered here, especially when cameras are absolutely everywhere, including in our own homes, cars, and – of course – on our phones.

We carry the means of creating images on us all the time, thinking nothing of recording people involved in every human activity possible. Political demonstrating – up to and including rioting – is a common focus for the lenses, as are all other newsworthy incidents.

Yet Mr Darmanin – apparently honestly – thinks that the thousands of police officers who are at the sharp end of such events should, somehow, become anonymous.

He could argue that all of them risk “harm”, because they can be picked out by potential criminals and then be attacked when they are off duty.

This spurious argument belies the multiple cases of unlawful violence carried out by the police themselves. In recent years these have ranged from suspects being killed and raped, to losing limbs.

There have been some successful prosecutions, and almost all of them have relied on responsible witnesses recording police attacks.

Those doing the filming display immense bravery in often very dangerous situations. They include professional journalists, but also plenty of ordinary citizens using their phones.

The bill could mean a knock on the door, and then a prosecution

The thought of such vital evidence becoming inadmissible because it is unlawful is disgraceful.

Worse than that, all kinds of people who happen to have captured an officer in films or photographs on their social media posts could experience a knock on the door, and then a prosecution.

What Mr Darmanin is proposing is “flexible” legislation – the sort that can be used to repress and criminalise in numerous situations, in the worst traditions of police states.

Groups such as Amnesty International and the United Nations, as well as France’s Human Rights Defender, have warned of the  that the bill represents.

We are dealing with Je Suis Charlie France, remember – a republic that wants to allow any image to be published, however provocative.

Hence Reporters Without Borders saying in a statement that the proposed law “would endanger journalists and press freedom.”

Beyond high-minded arguments about a plunge into totalitarianism, the reality is that no government anywhere in the world has yet learned how to tame the internet.

At present, a lot of the most effective accounts which regularly post images of police violence in France are anonymous ones.

Whether they appear on established platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, or on independent blogs, policing them will be a full-time job, and one ultimately doomed to failure.

Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion.

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