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Welcome to our media studies department. If you'd like to read about the book that shook France's leading daily, Le Monde, click here. Or try this:
off the Press
Sept. 21, 2001, the AZF chemical factory exploded in Toulouse, killing
29 people and wounding more than 2000.
The blast left a crater 50 meters wide, and for kilometers in every
direction windows were shattered. In Toulouse, home of
Airbus, fears of a terrorist attack similar to the World Trade Center
seemed plausible. But three days following the catastrophe,
the Prosecutor of the Republic in Toulouse, Michel Bréard,
declared that there was a “99 percent chance” that
the causes of the explosion were accidental. Not everyone
believed him, including the Minister of the Environment, Yves Cochet of
the Green Party, who a few days later publicly declared that it was too
soon to rule out terrorism. Thus began a watershed event in
the history of French investigative journalism.
The end of
Mennessier’s report asked: “Why did Hassan J. wear
kamikaze clothes when his eventual sacrifice did not seem indispensable
to the operation?”
It would be hard to miss the implication that the fundamental question
of whether he helped set off the blast or not was already
settled. Events soon proved otherwise.
Other tactics being used against investigative reporters are less funny. Recently, a reporter investigating a major French industry was wiretapped by his targets, and the information gained through the wiretap was given to his adversary in a civil proceeding. Likewise, the home of Anne-Marie Casteret, one of France’s leading investigative reporters, was burglarised after she published an article in the weekly L’Express supporting the terrorist theory of the AZF explosion; a portable computer and address books were stolen. The last known occasion that a prominent journalist working on a major story was burglarised occurred in the mid-1980s, when reporter (now editor-in-chief) Edwy Plenel of Le Monde undertook an extended investigation of the François Mitterrand regime.
The French penal and civil codes, which include numerous provisions that enable repression of the media, have also been applied in novel forms to discourage investigators. The most striking, perhaps, is the reféré, a legal proceeding which allows a single magistrate to ban the publication of a book or article, without an evidentiary hearing. Initiated by government decree in 1987, it was first employed to prevent the publication of an investigation of the son of then-President Mitterrand. In 1998, it developed in startling new ways. That May, publisher Albin Michel and independent investigator Antoine Gaudin were hit with an injunction ordering them to pull every copy of Gaudin’s new work, La Mafia des Tribunaux de Commerce, off the bookstore shelves or pay a fine of $18,000 for every copy remaining; by the end of the first afternoon following the judgement, the defendants owed about $1 million in fines. The injunction was reversed by a higher court after a scandal erupted, but the book’s targets changed tactics, filing apparently coordinated libel suits in courts across France. The following August, film star Alain Delon obtained an injunction forbidding respected investigative reporter Bernard Violet from even undertaking a biography of Delon.
In this context of a legal and extra-legal campaign against investigative journalism, the fact that reporters were prosecuted for diffusion of false news – a crime which carries a penalty of five years’ imprisonment in peacetime, and was formerly punishable by death in time of war – assumes its full significance. The law defines this crime as “the publication, diffusion or reproduction by any means of false news [or] fabricated evidence, falsified or falsely attributed to others, and which, created in bad faith, trouble public order or might have been capable of troubling it.”  Note the particularly broad sweep of the latter provision: It is not necessary to prove that public order was disrupted by false news, only that it could have been. However, bringing such cases to trial imposes an extra burden on the prosecution: Whereas in cases of defamation French journalists must prove that they acted professionally and in good faith, it is up to the prosecutor to demonstrate that they knowingly and wilfully published lies that could harm the public. That is one reason that the latter charge is extremely rare.
It is also noteworthy that Le Figaro was targeted – especially because, as the court’s judgement notes, “numerous media… had emitted doubts on the official thesis [of an accident] and advanced the thesis of terrorism before the first incriminated article” appeared in the journal. Le Figaro’s general news director, Jean-Marc Gonin, believes that it may have been filed because, under French judicial procedure, that would “oblige an investigating magistrate to go very far in finding the sources [of the journal’s stories].” Indeed, the judgement in the case pointedly notes that Le Figaro’s sources “are not revealed.”
It is a fact that Le Figaro and other French journals recently have been severely pressured to stop protecting confidential sources. On Dec. 14, 1999, Hubert Levet of the financial journal Agefi was indicted on charges of “divulging confidential financial information” for publishing the semestrial accounts of the Aérospatiale-Matra group 48 hours before their official release. The subsequent police investigation focused on uncovering Levet’s sources (and failed to do so). Two days later, agents of the official Commission des operations de la Bourse (COB) entered the offices of Le Figaro and demanded the names of sources who had informed reporter Nazarine Ravaï of the forthcoming merger between supermarket giants Carrefour and Promodès; they reportedly also showed her a list of her recent phone calls. Levet’s case went to trial, and resulted in no conviction; Le Figaro’s editors threw out the COB’s agents, and no charges were filed.
That the charge of diffusing false news was prosecuted at all, given the politicised nature of the French judicial system, raises the possibility of a political decision at a high level. So does the fact that at least one reporter working on the case encountered unusually harsh pressures from high police officials to drop the story. Such tactics are typically reserved for cases in which the interests of the State are directly involved, and pose the question of what those interests might be. There is no shortage of possible answers. The police may have feared that media investigations would interfere with their own attempts to verify the terrorist theory. Conversely, higher authorities may have decided that it was “socially less dangerous to designate [as responsible] the security chiefs of a business” than to evoke Islamic terrorism in France, as Marc Mennessier’s lawyer, Christian Etelin, contends.
Such tactics may backfire, of course, serving only to convince reporters that they are close to hidden truths. That is apparently what happened here: At the end of January, Casteret and Messonnier published separate but coordinated reports in L'Express and Le Figaro, charging that the official investigations of the affair had overlooked numerous leads that add up to the possibility that AZF was indeeed deliberately destroyed.
But intimidating the media can indeed convince many publishers, editors and reporters that there are safer ways of doing their work than investigating powerful adversaries. That is what occurred in the United States in the early 1980s, when the glamour of Watergate wore away, and public and judicial support for investigators waned. It is also what happened in Italy at the end of the Manu Pulite era, which Gonin witnessed directly. He sees a similar trend in France: “At a given moment, the public gets fed up [with the media]. Look at all the opinion surveys – we are less highly regarded than politicians. We’re at the service of the public, we’re less manipulated than before, and the public doesn’t respect us any more for that.”
We are looking here at a general dynamic of investigative reporting movements, well-documented by historians of journalism (and of the Muckraking movement of the early 20th century in particular). The experience of U.S. journalists following Watergate suggests that when hostile reaction to investigative work begins, it is crucial to inventory best practices, and to undertake education of reporters and editors, in a time when errors can become very costly. In the U.S., that role was filled by Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., through its manuals and conferences. To date, no organization has assumed that responsibility in France. As they say in Paris, “C’est dommage.”
Marc Mennessier, « EXPLOSION : L'autopsie
d'un Francais d'origine tunisienne, vetu de quatre epaisseurs de
sous-vetements, relance l'enquete; Toulouse : la police explore la
piste J. » Le Figaro, Oct. 4, 2001.