It is a “on the sly” passage which provokes the anger of defenders of freedom of expression and professional unions. After the senators in October 2023, the deputies approved on Wednesday February 7 a text which infringes the law of 1881 on the press. Adopted as part of the examination of the law aimed at strengthening the security and protection of mayors and local elected officials, the amendment must allow a “holder of a public elective mandate or candidate for such a mandate”, to assert a limitation period of one year to file a complaint in the event of defamation or public insult. Today, for any citizen, it is only three months.
This extension of the limitation period immediately caused unions in the sector to react. “The SNJ, the SNJ-CGT, the CFDT-Journalistes and the SGJ-FO, trade union organizations representing journalists in France, condemn with the greatest firmness this modification of one of the laws most protective of freedom of expression, of the freedom to inform and be informed”, the inter-union was indignant in a statement published online Wednesday. The association of lawyers practicing press law was also moved by this vote, asking in turn in a press release: “How can we not be stunned by such a way of proceeding, which consists of calling into question a protective pillar of a fundamental freedom on the sly, without the slightest overall reflection on freedom of expression and its limits in a democratic society? Maître Emmanuel Soussen, treasurer of the association and advisor to L’Express, takes stock of the situation.
L’Express: What is the context of the adoption of this text?
What happened is aberrant. An amendment adopted by the National Assembly increases the limitation period for defamation and insult, for elected officials and candidates, from three months – as for any average citizen – to one year. This extended deadline will inevitably lead to much more caution in publishing information and criticizing policies.
This amendment was made as part of a broader law, which aims to protect elected officials. In general, talking about protecting elected officials aims to aggravate the sanctions when they are attacked, when their house is burned. The parliamentarians considered that this protection also extended to social networks. Because I don’t dare imagine that this text is aimed at the press. But it turns out that by wanting to deal with the platforms, the amendment adopted by the deputies also affected the media.
In this case, couldn’t we make a difference between social networks and media?
Defamation was defined by the law of 1881, at a time when there were obviously no social networks. Even today, we do not make a distinction based on the medium, whether you attack someone for their comments on Twitter, or in L’Express: it is always the same offense. The law can hardly distinguish what is a social network or the traditional press. Take a media like Loopsider, which is only distributed on social networks: if we established a difference between the media, how can we distinguish Loopsider and an average person, who has not done investigative work?
As you note, the 1881 law was written at a time when social networks did not exist. A defamation was more easily forgotten. Since the Internet now exists, is it not legitimate to extend the possibility of filing a complaint?
The three-month period is short, but was designed to protect freedom of expression – which is the aim of the 1881 law. If it is also reduced, it is also because it is considered that in In the event of an attack on honor or insult, the fault must be repaired quickly. It makes no sense to launch a procedure several months later. For a journalist to be able to work, he must know that nothing will happen to him after three months. Otherwise, he will not be able to work efficiently.
Is the version adopted by Parliament final?
No. The law was not adopted in the same terms in the Senate and the Assembly. This therefore means, in the legislative procedure, that the text must pass through the joint committee. Knowledgeable people must be interviewed: unions, newspaper owners. In this context, the association of lawyers practicing press law, of which I am the treasurer, will also be heard.
Asked by The worldlawyer William Bourdon declared that this text “aggravates the feeling of “double standards” between citizens and elected officials. What do you think?
From a legal point of view, there is already a difference, but it does not concern the limitation period. There is the time limit for defamation against individuals, and what is called defamation against protected citizens, including deputies, senators, as well as any person holding public authority – mayor, general councilor. , etc. – as soon as she is questioned in the exercise of her functions. Towards an individual, defamation can result in a fine of up to 12,000 euros. It amounts to a fine of 45,000 euros for protected citizens.
But beyond the law, this adoption raises the question of the image sent back by elected officials. It is entirely conceivable that they are tired of being harassed on social networks, but why do this, without consulting anyone, on the sly?
If it were to be applied, what would be the consequences of this amendment for the editorial staff?
There will automatically be more procedures, which will cost the press more money – even if you are right, it costs money to defend yourself! It is regrettable that this amendment was adopted without having undergone any preparatory work. There was no consultation as there regularly is with those involved. For example, the media were not contacted – even though they are obviously concerned by the affair.
Even more seriously, this text also protects people who are candidates for elective mandates. This exponentially increases the number of possible defamation claims. What will prevent dangerous, anti-Republican candidates from filing complaints at all costs? A certain fringe of political parties are not friends of the press. She considers that, given the state of the media in France, we might as well take every opportunity to harass journalists with procedures. This text is an additional tool.