French government criticised for journalist’s arrest

2nd December 2008, Comments 1 comment

The French government has been slammed for trying to intimidate the press with the arrest of a newspaper chief over a simple case of libel.

2 December 2008

PARIS – The French government was forced to fight off accusations of intimidating the media Monday after police arrested, handcuffed and strip-searched a newspaper boss wanted for questioning in a libel case.

The account by Vittorio de Filippis, of the left-wing Liberation newspaper, of his five-hour detention Friday at a Paris area police station has sparked an outcry from rights groups, journalists' unions and politicians.

Filippis said he was handcuffed, strip-searched twice and questioned without a lawyer present after police turned up at his house before dawn and took him in to answer a libel complaint from the head of an Internet service provider.

France's Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie defended the police officers involved, saying they had "followed procedures" and were acting on the orders of the investigating judge handling the case.

Justice Minister Rachida Dati also fought off charges of heavy-handedness, saying the judge ordered the arrest after Filippis refused to answer a previous subpoena and that the procedure was "quite normal".

The opposition Socialist Party attacked what it called "unacceptable methods whose sole aim is to hamper press freedoms", urging President Nicolas Sarkozy to order a full investigation.

When Sarkozy stepped into the fray Monday, he said he understood the "emotion" sparked by the newsman's arrest and announced he was setting up a mission charged with reviewing arrest procedures to make them "more respectful of rights and individual dignity."

Filippis said he was humiliated in front of his two young sons when police turned up at his house.

At the station, he said he was forced to undress and was subjected twice to body cavity searches.

Liberation has called for a protest Friday outside the Paris criminal court and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) issued a statement strongly condemning the "disproportionate" judicial response.

"This affair smells of a witchhunt against the press," said the federation, which represents some 250,000 journalists in 30 countries.

The case also drew sharp criticism from the right-wing Le Figaro newspaper, and within Sarkozy's own governing UMP party.

"The methods used in a simple case of libel appear so disproportionate that there should be an investigation," said UMP spokesman Frederic Lefebvre.

Culture Minister Christine Albanel said Monday she was "surprised and upset" by the arrest.

Filippis was cited in a libel complaint lodged two years ago by Xavier Niel, head of Free Internet, over comments posted on Liberation's website in response to an article on Niel's legal problems.

Now a director for development, at the time he was Liberation's publisher and responsible under French law for its entire contents.

Liberation's editor Laurent Joffrin denied Filippis had deliberately ignored a subpoena, calling the decision to arrest him "absolutely extraordinary."

Joffrin said the paper had fought and won two previous libel cases against Niel, and had been issued with "a mountain of judicial and police summons" of which "it is possible that one or two got lost".

The arrest comes at a time of tensions between the media and Sarkozy's government, which has sparked strikes and protests with a sweeping reform of public broadcasting that would see top executives named directly by the president.

"We are outraged by the intolerable and humiliating methods used against Vittorio de Filippis," said the press watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

"This is unprecedented in France. To treat a journalist like a criminal and resort to procedures such as body searches is not only shocking but also unworthy of French justice," it said in a statement.

[AFP / Expatica]

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