French Media Outlets Criticize Watchdog for Warnings Over 'Charlie Hebdo' Coverage

Paris Hostage Scene - H 2015
Associated Press

In a joint statement emphasizing the importance of freedom of speech and the press, radio and TV networks ask: “In what other great democracy do we blame the audiovisual media for reporting the facts in real time?”

French media outlets cited by the Superior Audiovisual Council (CSA) for their news coverage during the Charlie Hebdo attack and a related attack in Paris last month, including news channels BFMTV, CanalPlus’ iTele and top-rated network TF1, have criticized the media watchdog.

They issued a joint response slamming the government watchdog for what they characterized as a threat to freedom of speech and the press.

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“The CSA has made an unprecedented decision, inflicting no less than 36 formal notices and warnings, discrediting the work of the editors and of almost all public and private radio and television [networks],” the statement said.

Fifteen news organizations were issued various levels of warnings last week for the information aired during the ongoing coverage of the attacks and hostage situations, including channels TF1, France 2, France 3, France 24, BFMTV, iTele, LCI, and Euronews, and radio news France Inter, France Info, RTL, Europe 1, RMC and RFI. They answered the charges jointly.

The open letter was drafted during an unusual meeting of news organization bosses held at the headquarters of TF1 on Tuesday and released to the Agence France-Presse on Wednesday.

“Freedom of the press is a constitutional right. Journalists have a duty to inform with rigor and precision. The CSA reproaches us for having potentially affected the public order or taking risks to feed tensions within the population. We disagree,” the letter said. “The CSA’s decision challenges the government guarantee of democracy, in which freedom of expression is the foundation.”

The letter also asked: “In what other great democracy do we blame the audiovisual media for reporting the facts in real time?”

They also addressed the competition from international media and web reporting, which cannot be stopped at the borders. “How can one imagine that the CSA wants to further strengthen control and regulation of the French audiovisual media when information flows freely in the press, on foreign channels, all social networks and websites? Does that not place us in a position of inequality before the law?”

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The media organizations said it was their duty to report against rumors and misinformation floated on social networks. “The decision of the CSA contains the seed of a dangerous alternative: censor or be punished,” their letter concluded.

Last week, the CSA issued 36 warnings for the coverage of the attacks in Paris as they were still ongoing, airing what it described as sensitive police information and information about people hiding in the buildings where hostages were being held, among other information that may have aided the attackers and endangered lives. The citations were warnings that would result in fines for further infractions.