French journalist charged in Renault spying case

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A French journalist was charged Thursday with revealing manufacturing secrets after the car magazine he worked for published photos of a Renault model.

18 July 2008

PARIS - A French journalist was charged Thursday with revealing manufacturing secrets after a car magazine published photos of a Renault model three years before it was to be rolled out in dealer showrooms.

Bruno Thomas, 45, who works for the magazine Auto Plus, is also accused of breach of trust among other charges in the case that dates back to last year, judicial sources said. If convicted, he faces a sentence of up to five years in jail.

After being held for questioning for two days, Thomas was released on recognizance and lawyer Benjamin Lemoine said his client was "stunned" by the charges.

On Tuesday, police searched the offices of Auto Plus in Paris, seizing computer hard discs and photos.

Renault filed suit for industrial espionage in July last year after photographs of its latest-generation Megane, a small family model and one of Europe's most popular cars, ran in Auto Plus.

A Renault employee who allegedly helped Thomas obtain the photos was charged on Friday, according to judicial sources.

The case raises questions of press freedom in France weighed against the automaker's insistence that protecting prototypes is essential in the highly competitive car industry.

"This entire affair appears to have been blown out of proportion," said Auto Plus editor-in-chief Laurent Chiapello.

Thomas "was simply doing his job, that is finding new information to better inform the reader".

The head of the French association of car industry writers, Denis Astagneau, said the arrest of the journalist and search of the magazine's offices was tantamount to an "inquisition".

Astagneau recalled that a similar case involved Auto Plus some 50 years ago, when carmaker Citroen accused the magazine of stealing the designs of its DS 19.

The publicity surrounding the case helped the magazine more than it did the carmaker, he said.

"We would think such judicial practices would be bygone," he added.

The government expressed concern over Thomas' arrest, with Justice Minister Rachida Dati pointedly saying she was "very committed" to defending press freedom.

Dati said Thomas' arrest underscored the importance of a bill she has submitted to parliament on the protection of journalists' sources.

The bill presented in May states that journalists have the right to protect sources with the exception of special cases when a "pressing imperative" requires the reporters to name names.

Culture Minister Christine Albanel said she was "uneasy" with the arrest of the journalist and the police search at the magazine's offices.

[AFP / Expatica]

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