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Self-Styled Custodian Of Freedom And Liberty Needs To Look Within – OpEd

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French media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) aka Reporters Without Borders recently named India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a ‘predator of press freedom’, in a flagrant display of populism and unabashed disinformation. For one, few countries permit their nationals to bash its polity and stay protected at all times by a Fundamental Law like the one affecting Speech and Expression or the Law on Privacy under the Right to Life, like India.

And then, to cement the freedom even further are High Court and Supreme Court rulings that serve as shining precedents in the absence of a clear legislation to enable factions of the media read, analyse and amplify it. That said, the flurry of police complaints, charges and counter-charges by machinery that include the State’s police force or Central agencies like the CBI, ED etc., and publicised across the media are only investigatory, pre-judicial inquiries in nature. Everything is finally decided by a robust judicial system that thrives to ensure ‘freedom’ guaranteed in myriad ways across India. The agenda-driven NGO’s is yet another malicious and malevolent targeted attack not just on the Prime Minister of India but also on the country’s established political process as well as its sovereign laws.

Criminalising Acts Of Freedom

That Article 24 of France’s newest and most controversial Security Bill makes it a criminal offence for anyone to disseminate images that might ‘harm the physical or mental integrity’ of police officers is hardly amplified doesn’t come as a surprise. Now, those found guilty under this law could be punished by a year in prison or a fine of up to €45,000. If this does not make it difficult for journalists, human rights activists and others to report on police brutality or other infractions, what does? The impact President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial new Security Bill has on journalists and on those other than journalists, especially those of immigrant origin living in neighborhoods where relations with the police have, for long, been strained, is conveniently downplayed.

Images posted online have held the key to denouncing cases of officers’ misconduct and racism over the years also exposing France’s lofty views on Liberty is something that this law will change completely. But, officials continue to attempt to water down the controversial bill that exposes the double-speak of the French government and without a hint of resistance from the world’s largest media groups.

Double-Speak Of The Official

France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, in a feeble attempt to assuage public fears, said that journalists and members of the public could still “film and broadcast” images of police officers even “without blurring their faces”; but, it is only when the images are shared with comments “intended to harm” or incite violence that they would fall afoul of the new law. Now, whether the comments were “intended to harm” or incite violence is entirely to the discretion of the police, read State, who will – obviously – usurp the benefit of doubt. It is violative of the very basis of natural law that reads, in Latin, Nemo judex in causa sua meaning, “no one can be a judge in his own cause.” It is an outright conflict of interest! But then, the French feel otherwise, and despite objection from every quarter.

MP for President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) party and the co-author of the controversial clause Alice Thourot said, “The bill will not jeopardise in any way the rights of journalists or ordinary citizens to inform the public”, adding it only “outlaws any calls for violence or reprisals against police officers on social media”. Now, coming from France whose police brutality is legendary, a bill to “outlaw calls for violence against police officers,” is like protecting the perpetrator.

Article 22 of the Security Bill allows the police greater latitude in the use of surveillance drones. In effect, drones could now be used in circumstances that are not subject to regulation too. Interestingly, while France is known as a self-styled guardian of liberty, the development of facial recognition technology to be used by drones raises further concerns for the French people. That drones must only be used if there is a legitimate need and a clear objective will be subject to the discretion of the French police.

Protests, and the largest of the lot, are reserved over Fears of Privacy, within and across India, almost always with regard to ‘Aadhar,’ the ‘CoWin’ app, Covaxin and all things Indian; and for the ‘Lives of Blacks’ across the US and those relating to ‘Strikes on Syria’ across the UK. France will always remain the self-styled apostle of love, peace and freedom.

Cases Scream Of Police Brutality

It may be recalled that police brutality was responsible for the killing of Adama Traoré, a Frenchman of Malian origin who died after his arrest in a Paris suburb in 2016. An autopsy commissioned by his family said he died of asphyxiation, yet the official health report said he died of heart failure, clearing three police officers of responsibility in June. If that wasn’t shocking enough, consider this: In a series of Facebook posts published several years after Adama’s 2016 death, Adama’s sister Assa wrote: I accuse the gendarmes of having killed my brother by crushing him with the weight of their bodies. And now, she is charged with defamation for publicly naming the three gendarmes involved in his death.

A delivery driver in Paris, Cédric Chouviat, suffered a heart attack and died in January 2020 after the police put him in a ‘choke-hold.’ The 42-year-old delivery man was reportedly stopped for using a phone while riding and having a dirty license plate on his bike. The video is in French, but shows the excessive force used to subdue Cedric to the ground.

He is recorded but ‘not heard’ by police saying “I’m suffocating” seven times. His larynx was crushed and prevented him from breathing. Three policemen were charged with manslaughter. Just a while back, in January 2021, a year after the death of French delivery driver Cédric Chouviat following a routine police check, several hundred people gathered in Paris to pay tribute to the victim and to support his family.

That three policemen involved in the incident were charged with ‘manslaughter’ instead of a more obvious and more serious ‘voluntary violence’ that carries a longer sentence in French law, underlined the need to permit the public and media shoot and film police officers committing acts of offence. The violence and aggressiveness of the police officers that led to Cédric’s death was clearly visible in the video but conveniently overlooked in the ‘process’ that seemed far from being ‘due’.

In December 2018, after several Yellow Vest protesters were bludgeoned inside a Burger King, images of the incident originally surfaced on social media, prompting public outrage. Yellow Vest because the French law requires all drivers to have yellow high-visibility vests in their vehicles and wear them during emergency situations, were chosen as “a unifying thread and call to arms” because of their ‘convenience, visibility, ubiquity and association with working-class industries.’

The Yellow Vest Protests is a series of populist, grassroots weekly protests in France, that started, at first, for economic justice and later for institutional political reforms, that began in France on 17 November 2018 and ended on 14 March 2020 but only due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a French national lockdown.

Journalists Attacked For Exercise Of Freedom

That Ameer Alhalbi, a Syrian photographer, who has worked for Polka magazine and AFP news agency, while covering demonstrations opposing police violence and the French government’s plans to restrict sharing images of officers, was assaulted by the police in Paris while covering protests against a law giving the same police immunity reveals the impotence of a misplaced law!

Alhalbi suffered a broken nose and injured forehead and had to be taken to a hospital. The 24-year-old had been wounded at Place de la Bastille by “a police baton”. Despite wide uproars of protests on the anti-freedom legislation, now, under Article 24, it will be an offence to disseminate images of national police officers or gendarmes if there is intention or “provocation” to identify them.

And, in a shameless display of hypocrisy, France’s National Consultative Commission on Human Rights states that the government has never intended to undermine press freedom with the bill. The issue here is of undermining press freedom and not about the French government’s intention.

Freedom of the Press or the Public, at large, must never be undermined. The French do it, as a rule, and with aplomb. And, while pointing fingers at others too.

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Gajanan Khergamker

Gajanan Khergamker is an independent editor, legal counsel and documentary film-maker with over three decades of media-legal experience across India. He is the founder of DraftCraft – an India-based think-tank. Through strategic writings and columns across global media; niche workshops held for the benefit of police personnel, lawyers and media students as well as key lectures held at corporate venues and in Law and Mass Media colleges and universities across India, he analyses and initiates 'live' processes that help deliver social justice through the media and legal channels. He trains students, journalists, lawyers and corporate personnel to ideate, integrate and initiate the process of social justice which “isn't the sole responsibility of the State”. He holds legal aid workshops and creates permanent legal aid cells for the deprived across India through positive activism and intervention. He furthers the reach of social responsibility by initiating strategic process by offering consultancy services to corporates in the rapidly-growing CSR scenario. To further the reach of social responsibility, Gajanan Khergamker works closely with state entities, law universities, educational institutes, research think-tanks, publications and media houses, corporates and public-spirited individuals. His areas of interest include public affairs, inclusion, conflict of interest, law and policy, foreign affairs and diversity.

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