Freedom of speech in the French media
“The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious human rights: hence every citizen may speak, write, print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be determined by Law.” Freedom of speech, thus defined by Article 11 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen has achieved universal scope worldwide. The article inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948 (Art. 19) and the European Convention on Human Rights adopted on 4 November 1950 (Art. 10).
In France, the State guarantees press freedom and safeguards media independence by ensuring the diversity of opinion and pluralism of news and information. The law prevents excessive media concentration by prohibiting any one media group from controlling more than 30% of the daily press.
The Act of 29 July 1881 on freedom of the press provides a framework for press freedom by setting restrictions designed to strike a balance between freedom of expression, protection of citizens and maintaining law and order.
In 1984, the Constitutional Council acknowledged the constitutional value of press freedom and its necessary role in a democracy.
PROTECTION OF INDIVIDUALS
The law protects minors from written material and illustrations in which they can be identified. It prohibits licentious and violent publications which target minors.
The law punishes slander and defamation: "Any offensive expression, contemptuous term or invective, not based on fact, constitutes slander. Any allegation or imputation of an act which dishonours or damages the reputation of the person or entity against whom it is made constitutes defamation". (Article 29, Act of 29 July 1881).
MAINTAINING LAW AND ORDER
The law punishes:
incitement to commit crimes or offences
efforts to justify war crimes and crimes against humanity
incitement to discrimination, hatred and violence
The Act of 13 July 1990, known as the "Gayssot Act", introduced a right of reply for any person who considers that a newspaper or periodical has dishonoured him or her on the grounds of his/her membership or non-membership of an ethnic group, nationality, race or religion. The Gayssot Act sets a penality of a five-year prison sentence and a €45,000 fine for the expression in public of ideas contesting the existence of the crimes against humanity committed by Nazi Germany during World War II defined in the appendix to the London Agreement of 8 August 1945.
PROPER ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE
Laws protect the confidentiality of judicial investigations, the presumption of innocence and compliance with judicial decisions.
· During the preliminary stage of a judicial investigation, the law prohibits the publication of:
images relating to the facts of a crime or offence
information about the identity of the victim of a sexual offence
information likely to put pressure on witnesses
information about police or judicial investigations with implications for national security
judicial decisions before they have been read out in court.
· During court proceedings, the law prohibits:
photographing, filming and recording of administrative and judicial court proceedings¹
publishing information relating to in-camera proceedings
publishing court proceedings which include details of an individual’s private life
publishing court proceedings relating to military affairs, foreign security and acts of anarchy.
Press freedom has also applied to television since the Act of 29 July 1982 on audiovisual communications, which ended the State monopoly on television. The purpose of the various Acts on audiovisual communications is to guarantee media independence and pluralism by establishing rules to combat media concentration (Arts. 17 and 41-4 of the Act of 30 September 1986). Freedom of speech in the audiovisual media must respect human dignity.
Article 1 of the Act of 30 September 1986 (amended) on Freedom of Communication states that “this freedom may be limited only, to the extent required, for the respect of human dignity, freedom and property of other people, the pluralistic nature of the expression of ideas and opinions and, for the protection of children and adolescents, safeguarding of law and order, for national defence, public service reasons (…).”
The legislation includes special measures to protect minors, such as the ban on broadcasting for them pornographic programmes and programmes promoting violence.
The schedules of obligations for public television channels and the agreements signed by privately-owned channels include ethical principles of independence and pluralism similar to those laid down in the legislation.
The Higher Audiovisual Council (http://www.csa.fr/), France’s independent broadcasting authority, guarantees freedom of communication. It cannot either impose or prevent the broadcast of a programme, but, after this goes out, checks its compliance with the law and rules governing the channels. It pays special attention to programmes for young audiences and to ensuring that equal air time is allocated to political parties and candidates during electoral periods.
The Act of 1 August 2000 on freedom of communication amends and expands the 1986 Act, adding, inter alia, provisions on the introduction of digital terrestrial television and establishment of local television stations.
¹ From her past, France has inherited two types of court. When the State, a local authority or a public service is involved, the administrative courts have jurisdiction, the Conseil d’Etat being the highest one. All other disputes are referred to the ordinary, i.e. civil and criminal courts.
To find out more
Freedom of Communication Act No. 86-1067 of 30 September 1986 (Léotard Act) [not latest version]
Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms
For links to media websites
Loi de 1881 sur la liberté de la presse
Loi n°82-652 du 29 juillet 1982 sur la communication audiovisuelle
Loi n°86-1067 du 30 septembre 1986 relative à la liberté de communication, dite «loi Léotard»
Loi n°2000-719 du 1er août 2000 modifiant la loi n°86-1067 du 30 septembre 1986 relative à la liberté de communication
Convention de sauvegarde des Droits de l’Homme et des Libertés fondamentales
Déclaration universelle des droits de l’homme adopté par l’Onu à Paris le 10 décembre 1948
Code de la communication, éd. Dalloz, 2005
Lois et règlements français – presse écrite
Lois et règlements français – presse audiovisuelle
Fiche de la Direction des médias (DDM): un principe fondateur: la liberté d’expression
Fiche DDM: la loi du 29 juillet 1881 sur la liberté de la presse
Fiche DDM: Infractions prévues par la loi du 29 juillet 1881
Le contrôle (sur les limites de l’encadrement juridique de la liberté de communication)
La protection des mineurs à la télévision et à la radio
Le pluralisme de l’information
Cahiers des missions et des charges des chaînes et des radios publiques