March 04, 2003


Despite its disguise as a conservative diatribe against France, an opinion piece in today's Wall Street Journal provides a timely reminder that the freedoms of press we enjoy in the United States are not globally universal.

Marc Carnegie, an Agence France-Presse reporter in Paris, points out that the editors of a French weekly (Le Nouvel Observateur) committed a crime when they called George Bush a "little Presbyterian Caligula."

No, the crime was not confusing our president's religion (he's a Methodist), but violating a 122-year-old French law that prohibits public cheekiness toward the French president or other heads of state. Carnegie explains:

"The law has been on the books, with few changes, since 1881; it's the same one Emile Zola defied when he published J'accuse (ed. note: which one law professor calls the 'Greatest Newspaper Article in History') to defend Captain Dreyfus at the end of the 19th century. No one has been arrested for insulting the president here since the 1960s, when a parade spectator was briefly jailed after booing Charles de Gaulle. But the far-reaching code remains on the books, and its pernicious effect has extended well beyond France's borders."

Indeed, the France's restrictive press law has been a model for numerous so-called insult laws that manacle press freedom. According to a World Bank Institute book published in 2002 ("The Right to Tell") on the connections between mass media and economic development, insult laws of one variety or another exist in more than 100 nations and are especially harsh in emerging nations in Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In Belarus, for example, a journalist can get up to two years in prison for "insulting a government official in connection with the performance of his duties." France's law is no slouch itself. It law broadly defines an insult as "any insulting expression, term of contempt or invective that does not refer to any fact." (Such as confusing a Presbyterian Caligula with a Methodist Caligula).

Even the French press seems sensitive to criticism (perhaps because it is unaccustomed to levying it). Carnegie mentions the release last week of a book that portrayed the newspaper Le Monde "shocked the chattering classes here and quickly drew vows of legal action." Carnegie continues:

"And yet some of the book's accusations -- for example, that an 'atmosphere of fear' hangs over the newsroom -- might seem rather tame to a seasoned hack in New York or London. One widely reported charge is that bosses at Le Monde pushed the paper to portray France in an excessively negative light. That may sound perverse in the civilized corridors of Paris, but it sounds like a normal day's work in newsrooms elsewhere.

"The result of all this gentility -- enforced by law -- is that French politicians have strong protection from the aggressions of the press. The press code not only forbids insults to top officials; it also criminalizes many of the tools of investigative journalism. 'French legislation on the press is among the most reactionary in Europe,' the international watchdog group Reporters Sans Frontieres said last year. 'Press freedom is often the French courts' last concern.'"

The World Press Freedom Committee tracks restrictions on the news media and advocates for their repeal. Freedom of the press is a relative concept - and, in too many places on the planet, an unknown one. All the more reason to put ours to good use.

 Wall St. Journal Banned in France
 World Press Freedom Committee
 Insult Laws: An Insult to Press Freedom A 274-page global study by a University of North Carolina professor.
 World Bank Institute The Right to Tell

Posted by Tim Porter at March 4, 2003 06:37 PM

Bunch of danish school kids were arrested when they arrived in france a few years back wearing tshirts deriding chie-rac for his nuclear testing ninniness in the south pacific.

Posted by: john on May 20, 2003 03:32 PM
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