As the gilets jaunes protests rage on, police attempt to straightjacket the press

The recent arrest of two journalists at a demonstration is symptomatic of the hostile climate facing journalists in Macron’s France. 

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Over the last months the gilets jaunes movement has shone a light on police violence. Some protesters have been mutilated for life by police weapons, and an elderly lady was left with a fractured skull  after police knocked her over at a rally in Nice. Up until now, however, the French police have left the press relatively untouched. But on 20 April, which marked the 23rd consecutive weekend of protests by the gilets jaunes, police arrested two freelance journalists during a demonstration in Paris.

Gaspard Glanz, a reporter for Taranis News, and Alexis Kraland, a freelance journalist, were both filming the march. The police, however, cited their “participation [in] a group planning to commit violence or degradations” as the reason for their arrest. Kraland refused to hand in his camera and was detained for 8 hours; Glanz spent the weekend in jail for raising a middle finger to police officers after one of their grenades almost hit him during the protest.

Journalists and human rights groups keeping count of the alarming number of injuries now estimate that 76 journalists, photographers and videographers have been constrained by police since the first gilets jaunes protest. In Emmanuel Macron’s France, journalists are being arrested and detained for an unlawful time for covering demonstrations.

Unlike Kraland, who was released after a few hours and without sanctions, Glanz was held for 48 hours. This is twice the legal amount of time the police can detain someone without giving a reason. Police have since banned Glanz from covering protests in Paris, including the traditional International Workers' Day march on 1 May, until his trial in October.

The armed forces present at each Saturday protest are there to “prevent violence and ensure the security of the protesters and journalists”, the French interior minister told Agence France-Presse. When journalists are arrested, “which can happen”, he said, it is not because of their status as press, but “because of [their] noted infractions”. Raising a finger to the authorities is puerile at best, as Glanz admitted, but a 48-hour long stay in jail and a ban from the capital’s protest is an officious punishment.

Glanz’s case also underlines the precarity that freelance journalists face when covering this type of demonstration. He was denied the status of journalist because he didn't have a professional card to prove it – a card many independent journalists cannot get if at least half their revenue doesn’t come from a “recognised” media organisation.

Fewer journalists hold a press card each year in France, in part due to the profession’s casualisation, with short-term contracts and freelance work increasingly common. Glanz is a journalist nonetheless, but his lack of professional accreditation led to more trouble. It is easier for the authorities to ostensibly confuse reporters like Glanz with protesters “planning to commit violence or degradations”, and therefore to arrest them.

And because Glanz covers social conflicts and street protests, his name is on the French intelligence services’ “S record”, a watchlist supposedly reserved for terrorists but used by French authorities to keep an eye on radical activist networks. This, in turn, was used to paint him as an extreme left activist attending the protest out of his own political convictions rather than to report on the news.

Glanz’s case is symptomatic of an alarming situation for French journalists. Media unions and Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit organisation, are warning of “violations of the freedom of the press.” Catherine Monnet, deputy chief editor at Reporter Without Borders, told AFP that these arrests were “contrary to the right and the freedom of information”: “Journalists must be able to cover these protests freely, to report on them and on the acts of the protesters and the police”, she added. Since Glanz’s detainment, journalist societies – journalist unions – from Le Monde, Libération, France Télévision and Médiapart have spoken publicly in defence of Glanz, denouncing the “deafening silence of the ministry of information and communications, supposed to defend the freedom of the press”.

“We are starting to wonder whether there is a determined will to intimidate journalists, especially photographers, on the ground. We are under the impression that some are being targeted,” Vincent Lanier, from the media union SNJ, told Le Monde. “This is a very slippery slope for freedom of information. It is the freedom of the press that is endangered”, he added.

The independent news website StreetPress has called for a “boycott of government communication” in response to Glanz and Kraland’s arrests: “These are not isolated events. They are part of a global context of violation of the freedom of the press since the start of the current presidency.” Indeed, from deferential interviews to choosing which journalists can attend presidential visits to the closure of the Elysée press room, Macron’s presidency, which is not yet two years old, will not be remembered for its fierce defence of the press.

Shortly after his release, Glanz said he will cover the upcoming protests despite his ban. He warned that a “very serious point of no return” has been reached, assessing the changing relationship of a two-faced police towards the press: “When we were filming their units during the Strasbourg attacks, they were proud to show their shields to the camera, we were helping their promotion. But when we show police violence, the truth of what happens in Paris, then we’re banned from filming. Because we could show things that must not be seen.”

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.