Somewhere, Robspierre Is Laughing, and Rousseau Shakes His Head

“Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité.” That was the rallying cry for the French Revolution, which was driven in part by citizen journalists – rogue publishers of newspapers, pamphlets and the like, who spread the revolutionary word to the masses of Paris and the surrounding French countryside. They published at risk of life and limb, helping bring down a monarchy and changing the historical course of all of Europe and the Western world we know today. Indeed, so-called citizen journalists have played key roles in social change throughout history; the American Revolution might have been different without the likes of Tomas Paine and his self-published peers.

So it’s rather ironic that [tag]France[/tag], of all countries, earlier this month enacted a [tag]law[/tag] that makes the filming or broadcasting by people other than professional journalists of violent acts a criminal act. This is the country that gave the Statue of Liberty to the United States as a gift – the country that was our closest ally during our own revolution. As an editor for IDG news service observed, the law came on the 16-year anniversary of the [tag]Rodney King[/tag] beating, which was filmed by amateur videographer George Holliday – yet more irony. The law proposed by the infamous Nicolas [tag]Sarkozy[/tag], the current French interior minister, is theoretically intended to address perpetrators of a violent crime filming the act, as the IDG’s Peter Sayer explains:

During parliamentary debate of the law, government representatives said the offense of filming or distributing films of acts of violence targets the practice of “happy slapping,” in which a violent attack is filmed by an accomplice, typically with a camera phone, for the amusement of the attacker’s friends.

But French [tag]civil liberties[/tag] groups are already up in arms, as the law is apparently so broad as to make no distinction between “[tag]happy slapping[/tag]” and an innocent bystander filming a violent act. Not only could someone like Halliday theoretically be jailed under the law, but if the video were published on the Internet or were to otherwise post it to a [tag]blog[/tag], the publisher could face up to five years in prison and a fine of €75,000 ($98,537), according to IDG. The story goes onto say that the French government is proposing “a certification system for web sites, blog hosters, mobile-phone operators and Internet service providers, identifying them as government-approved sources of information if they adhere to certain rules.”

That’s some scary shit, to put it bluntly. It will be interesting to see if it holds up in the French court in the ensuing years. I can’t help but think that down the road the law will be clarified to exempt citizen journalists, distinguishing them from the perpetrators of the violent crimes in question. Surely rational thought will prevail, n’est pas? After all, here in post-9/11 America, we’re setting the standard for eroding civil liberties; we don’t need any help. But the French government has been swinging to the right for some years now, so it will be interesting to see just how far it goes now that Mitterand is retiring, or if it will swing back to the left.

You can read the IDG story here.

You can read the actual French law (in French, naturally), here.