Harsh anti-citizen journalism law will be impossible to implement - Press Gazette

Harsh anti-citizen journalism law will be impossible to implement

I'm a journalist. I write a blog. I upload photographs to the photo sharing site Flickr and video to YouTube. I also post snippets of text to the mini-blog site Twitter, sometimes using my mobile phone to do so. These are all free online publishing services and they're used by millions of people worldwide. For some governments, this is a problem. At least it is in France and the US.

On 25 March in Toulouse, there was a small-scale riot.

About 300 Toulousains took to the streets in protest against the appearance of far-right presidential candidate Jean Marie Le Pen at a rally in the city. Police were deployed, tear gas used, a helicopter monitored events from above and in total 20,000 euros (£13,000) was reportedly spent containing the small number of protesters.

I was present at the riot. I Twittered a series of eight live messages. I took photos. At one point, a police officer asked me to hand him my camera. I showed him my press card and I carried on taking photographs. An hour later, I uploaded the images to the photosharing site Flickr. And a day later, I noticed a comment by Mo, a fellow Flickr member, below one of the 24 images. He wrote: "I got all the photos and videos I took yesterday on my cameraphone deleted by a policeman, who told me he would arrest [me] if he ever saw me doing [it] again. I don't know if he had the right to erase the photos. I should see about that."

On 3 March, the Prevention of Criminality Law was approved by the French Constitutional Council. Nicolas Sarkozy, the presidential candidate and former interior minister, said the law was aimed at so-called "happy slappers" who film acts of violence on their mobile phones and send the footage to friends.

However, according to Reporters without Borders, the law could have far wider uses, which may or may not have allowed the policeman to delete Mo's images from Toulouse.

The law provides for sentences of up to five years in prison and fines of 75,000 euros (£50,000) for publishing images that violate specific acts mentioned in the law — one of which concerns violence "committed by an agent of the state in the exercise of his duties". And this, say Reporters Without Borders, is the problem — the wording.

"I believe this law is going to be very difficult to implement," says Julien Pain, internet freedom editor for Reporters Without Borders. "It's going to be very difficult to prevent bloggers, internet users and people on the streets from posting photos and videos on the internet. This law has been badly written. I would find it surprising if a judge would really sentence to jail or even fine someone, just because he posted such a video online, but anything is possible."

When the law passed into being, RWB said "posting videos online showing violence against people could now be banned, even if it were the police who were carrying out the violence… this law introduces a dangerous distinction between professional journalists, allowed to disseminate images of violence, and ordinary citizens, who could be jailed for the same thing."

France is not alone in threatening to prosecute so-called citizen journalists. In America, video blogger Josh Wolf was released this month after spending 226 days in prison, a record stay in prison for any American journalist, let alone a citizen one. He was released after agreeing to hand over video footage of the G8 summit protests in San Francisco.

He published some of the video on the IndyMedia website.

The police wanted to see the entire footage to investigate an arson that happened during the protest. Wolf refused, stating that, as a journalist, it would endanger his sources. Wolf was held in contempt of court and sentenced to jail. The case highlighted a grey area in US legislation — namely the confusion of whether the legal protections given to journalists are accessible to bloggers. The case also begs the question: what constitutes journalism?

If the Toulouse riot is anything to go by, policing the citizen journalists, as well as checking the credentials of members of the card-carrying variety, would require almost double the number of police. Everywhere I looked, there was someone holding a cameraphone. And sure enough, hours later, video and photographs of the event began appearing on blogs, forums, and photo- and video-sharing websites often easily searchable.

Although not commonly used by members of the public, services such as Shozu.com allow anybody with a cameraphone to upload images and video to a blog or sharing website instantly and automatically. This means that even if a police officer confiscated a phone and erased the memory, those same images would have already been published somewhere on the internet.

Reporters Without Borders recognises the police's concern. Two days after the Toulouse protests, there was a riot in Paris's Gare du Nord railway station, and 13 people were arrested. As is now expected, photographs and video rapidly appeared on the internet. "I know many people shot the incident," says Pain. "That was a problem for the police because you had maybe 20 young people filming the cops and even their faces. If you put that on the internet, that could be a problem. It could launch some kind of chase. It's a complex issue and the way the law deals with it is certainly not appropriate."