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French broadcasters protest at official criticism of Charlie Hebdo coverage

French special force before the assault on the printworks in Dammartin-en-Goële where the Kouachi brothers were holed up
French special force before the assault on the printworks in Dammartin-en-Goële where the Kouachi brothers were holed up Reuters/Eric Gaillard

French broadcasters protested Friday against a rap on the knuckles delivered by the country’s broadcasting watchdog for their coverage of last month’s Charlie Hebdo killings and their aftermath. Most of France’s TV and radio stations were criticised for their live coverage of sieges of the killers and making other information public.

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The Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA), which oversees French broadcasters but not newspapers or online media, found 36 breaches by 16 organisations - seven state-owned and nine private - of the CSA’s rules, 21 of them deemed serious enough to merit a formal warning, which could lead to sanctions if a new breach occurs.

RFI received one warning and our sister channel, France 24 TV, three.

The CSA’s objections were to:

  • Rebroadcasting video of police officer Ahmed Merabet being shot, shown by France 24 with images of the shooting blacked out but the sound still running;
  • Identifying Charlie Hebdo gunmen Saïd and Chérif Kouachi while they were on the run, despite an official request not to do so;
  • The identification of a potential suspect, who turned out not to be involved;
  • Live coverage of the police operations against the Kouachis when they were holed up in a printworks in northern France and Amedy Coulibaly when he took hostages in a kosher supermarket in Paris;
  • Reporting that police were storming the printworks while Coulibaly was still holding hostages;
  • Making public the fact that some hostages may have been hiding in the supermarket’s cold store during Coulibaly’s hostage-taking;
  • Live coverage of the police assault on the supermarket.

It argued that allowing the Kouachis to know they had been identified could have helped them evade the police, that reporting that people might have been hiding in the

Click for RFI reports of the Charlie Hebdo killings

supermarket could have endangered their lives and that live coverage of the assault on the printworks could have led Coulibaly to kill his hostages.

The media’s role in “ensuring the public is informed” has to be balanced against “allowing law enforcement to fulfil its mission with the required effectiveness”, the CSA declared in a statement.

The “persistent images, likely to encourage tension and antagonisms, could contribute to disturbing public order”, it judged.

The statement added that it is considering recommending changes in broadcasting rules to beef up protection of “human dignity” and “public order” during coverage of conflicts and “terrorist acts”.

Broadcasters responded with what Le Monde newspaper described as “rare vehemence”.

The decisions “raise major questions over the right to inform in our country”, declared state TV boss Thierry Thuillier, while Radio France expressed “surprise and astonishment” and pledged to appeal against them.

Above all, they point out that the public can follow major events live on news websites, social media and international broadcasters, regardless of whether they cover them.

“Do they want viewers abroad to switch to our competitors Al-Jazeera or CNN, who have no hesitation in showing these kind of images,” asked France 24 chief editor Marc Saikili.

At RFI the Société des Journalistes, which raises journalists’ editorial concerns, pointed out in a leaflet that the police issued no orders or recommendations regarding the coverage of the storming of the hostage-takings and did not clear reporters away from the scenes.

Although there should be debate about how such exceptional events are covered, the CSA’s response was “totally out of proportion”, it said, asking what exactly is meant by the phrase “protecting public order”.

 

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