Explainer: Implications of the ‘Global Security’ Bill That Ban Dissemination of Police Images in France

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In early November, Emmanuel Macron-led centrist majority government introduced a new security bill following a series of recent terror attacks. The French National Assembly  gave the ‘global security’ countenance on Tuesday. Among other things, the law would make it a criminal misdemeanour to distribute images of police officers with an intent to cause them harm. The move stirred an outcry among journalists unions and free speech campaigners. Protestors took to the streets to express dissidence notwithstanding lockdown restrictions in light of rising Covid-19 cases in the country. Many believe that the law concerns both journalists and citizens, and could lead to a sense of impunity of police at demonstrations that usually turn violent.

French documentary The Monopoly of Violence that released earlier this year is a forthright examination of police savageness in France. The film centres on the Yellow Vest protests, as well as accusations of police abuse in the suburbia. Filmmaker David Dufresne relied on footage contributed by journalists and citizens posting on social media. He frets that producing a film like this may not be reasonable in future with the French Parliament giving way to the new bill. The bill clamps down on telecast and sharing of pictures of police officers. Additional proposals within the bill include authorising police to use camera-equipped drones and easier access to CCTV footage.

After some left and centrist MPs disapproval and discontentment, the government added a clause that says the right to information will not be breached. The purpose of the bill, being debated in the National Assembly, this week is to “protect those who protect us”, according to Gérald Darmanin, the Interior Minister, pointing towards the recent attacks on French police; last month for a case about 40 people attempted to attack a police station in the Parisian suburb of Champigny-sur-Marne. The French congressmen have been debating the uncertain law; one of its provisions stipulates prison time and a penalty of forty-five thousand Euros for anyone publicising or sharing identifiable pictures of police officers to cause them harm.

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France’s human rights ombudsman, Claire Hédon, stated that the draft bill “raises significant risks of violation of several fundamental rights, in particular, the right to privacy and freedom of information”. The law was later altered to penalise those who publish pictures in which policemen are identifiable “with the intent to cause (them) harm.” Rights activists have voiced their concerns over Article 24 of the security bill. It is questionable owing to its ambiguity, subject to interpretation, and makes it extremely hard to prove the extent to which such evidence might impact individual judges and persuade them that there was a definite intent to harm. Applying to citizens, who usually film such videos of police brutality, experts say would not be possible anymore. For instance, in January, a bypasser’s video was treated as decisive evidence in the case of Cédric Chouviat who succumbed to death after three officers stayed pinning him to the ground despite him screeching, “I’m suffocating” more than seven times; the police officers were held guilty and given punishment sentences.

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A broad coalition of campaigners fears that the new law could have a chilling effect on press freedom, and deter journalists from filing the police. It may make it harder to hold abusive officers accountable. The country’s biggest police union which had been pushing for the law, second the government on the law. They argue that because of indiscriminate posting of pictures of police officers, particularly on social media has led to nasty repercussions which lead to their colleagues becoming sufferers of harassment, even families of those officers get threatened. In many low-income areas  one can spot walls with disrespectful graffiti and names of police officers implying that their daughters or wife will be raped, which they believe the new law in place would tackle.

Different say that the law destroys fundamental liberties and sets France on a slippery slope. The police brutality has lived in France for decades. Social media allows for the easy broadcasting of police brutality incident videos. What lawmakers want to do is stop the circulation of these images, which is quite an issue amongst the populace who feel that the law inflicts damage on the democratic fabric of the Republic. Large demonstrations sparked in Paris and other cities as in several other French cities. Journalists unions and rights groups are up in arms dreading that filming an officer inflicting force is quintessential to being able to convict and restrain the antics of violent officers. 

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In other news, just three days after the bill was given the green light by French lawmakers, a condemnable video shared on social media shook the country, wherein three French police officers could be seen beating and racially abusing a Black man. The incident has sparked outrage throughout the country and has once again brought the controversial security bill into the limelight, for all the wrong reasons. Celebrities and politicians across the country united to denounce the officers’ actions and have brought the debate over President Emmanuel Macron’s law to boiling point. Macron on Friday called the incident an “unacceptable attack” and asked the government to come up with proposals to “fight against discrimination” according to Aljazeera.

Recent terror attacks and growing uncertainty have prompted the French Government to take a tough stance on the security front, and the proposed law is suspected to hollow divisions and fan farther distrust between the police and the public. Many analysts in France say that the national politics has a role to play in the sitch; vote appeasement politics as the upcoming presidential election is only shy of one year and a half.