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France: New Intelligence Bill Poses Threat to Journalists

The General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI) would be empowered to collect metadata, intercept telecommunications, place private places under surveillance, locate vehicles and access transport company data on “security” grounds


This article originally appeared at Eurasia Review


A bill giving France’s intelligence services new powers to monitor communications, which Prime Minister Manuel Valls submitted to the council of ministers last week, poses a grave new threat to the confidentiality of journalists’ sources, according to Reporters Without Borders.

<figcaption>A bill to be debated in France’s parliament would force communications firms to give intelligence services access to connection data of people suspected of involvement with terrorist groups | IIlustration by Kasper Pempel, REUTERS</figcaption>
A bill to be debated in France’s parliament would force communications firms to give intelligence services access to connection data of people suspected of involvement with terrorist groups | IIlustration by Kasper Pempel, REUTERS

Unveiled on 19 March, the bill provides for intelligence gathering on an extremely varied range of grounds that include the “prevention of terrorism” and ensuring that “France (…) carries out its European obligations.”

The General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI) and agencies attached to the economy, defence and interior ministries would be empowered to collect metadata, intercept telecommunications, place private places under surveillance, locate vehicles and access transport company data on “security” grounds.

According to Reporters Without Borders, all these measures are likely to give rise to abuses. In particular, by allowing agencies to gather metadata and to access to the content of communications, the bill would make it easy for them to identify journalists’ sources.

The agencies would also be allowed to intercept the content of mobile phone communications by using IMSI-catcher devices and to access instant messaging by various methods including the installation of spyware. If the bill is adopted in its current form, the intelligence services will have no trouble finding out who journalists are talking to and what about, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The intelligence agencies would be allowed to monitor not only suspects but also those who might be acting as “intermediaries” in violations of the law, whether “deliberately or not.” This would exempt them from having to justify spying on a journalist in any request made to the prime minister.

“We demand that this law include safeguards for the right of journalists to work without being spied on, or else it will constitute a grave violation of media freedom,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.

“The government must restore protection for the confidentiality of journalists’ sources by bringing reference to a judge back into the established procedures. It is vital that an exception be made for journalists in the system of surveillance envisaged in this bill.”

In his 2013 report on surveillance, the use of personal data and respect for privacy, Frank La Rue, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, said spying on the communications between journalists and their sources would have a disastrous effect (paragraphs 26 and 52).

La Rue stressed the need for judicial control of surveillance, especially over data gathering and storing (paragraph 54). But this bill makes no provision for referring decisions to a judge acting as guarantor of civil liberties. In fact, this bill includes absolutely no safeguards for the individual’s fundamental rights.

Finally, the bill allows the intelligence services to use techniques that until now were reserved for the judicial police. These include recording private or confidential conversations, photographing or filming people in a private place, intercepting computer data and locating people, vehicles or other objects in real time.

In the criminal code, such procedures are accompanied by special safeguards for persons with a special status such as journalists. But, as the National Commission for Information Technology and Freedoms (CNIL) noted on 5 March, this bill contains no safeguards for protected professions, including journalists.

Journalists are still awaiting a law providing more effective protection for the confidentiality of their sources – a campaign promise that President François Hollande reiterated in January. Meanwhile, the threats to the confidentiality of their sources continue to grow.


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