French police treatment of journalist raises free-speech issues

PARIS — The police treatment of a journalist accused of libel, who was dragged from his home in front of his young sons, has raised questions about freedom of speech in France and the tactics employed by the police and the judicial system here.

At 6:40 a.m. last Friday, Vittorio de Filippis, a writer and former publisher of the left-leaning newspaper Libération, opened the door to three armed police officers as his 14-year-old son watched and another son, aged 10, listened through the bedroom door.

In an interview Monday, Filippis said he was refused a telephone call to his lawyer, handcuffed on his way to the tribunal and strip-searched twice before being taken to see a judge and formally charged with libel against the founder of the French Internet provider Free, Xavier Niel.

By Monday, the affair had grown into a polarizing national debate. Opposition politicians and rights groups warned of an ever more repressive climate for journalists, while two ministers in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government defended the police and the judge who ordered the detention of Filippis.

Later in the day, however, Sarkozy’s office issued a statement indicating that he wanted to downgrade libel from a criminal offense to a civil offense. A draft bill decriminalizing libel would be discussed in Parliament at the start of 2009, the statement said.

According to Justice Minister Rachida Dati, Filippis had ignored repeated court summonses before Justice Muriel Josié signed the warrant to bring him in by force. When someone “does not comply with summons, we send him a warrant to bring him in,” Dati told lawmakers in the Senate, France’s upper house of Parliament, on Monday, calling the action taken in the case of Filippis “completely normal.”

There was some confusion as to whether Filippis ever received a summons. Officials in the prosecutor’s office said three summonses had been sent, in June, July and August this year. Filippis said that he never received one, though he was careful not to entirely exclude the possibility of having missed “a letter or two” in the correspondence involving the Niel case.

But beyond the squabbles over legal procedure, the case has highlighted the larger question of how much freedom of speech exists here. France ranks 35th in press freedom in a list of countries established by Reporters Without Borders – just below Mali – and Sarkozy himself has not shied from suing a journalist perceived to be hostile.

One issue raised publicly by Filippis’s lawyer and privately by judicial and police officials, was whether a forced summons and temporary detention was warranted in a libel case.

“This sort of treatment just does not exist in libel cases normally because they are not punishable by even one day in prison,” said Libération’s lawyer, Jean-Paul Lévy, adding that in 33 years of defending the newspaper in libel cases, he had never seen such violence.

“We have no memories of this type of method ever being used for a publisher,” said an official in the prosecutor’s office, where an administrative inquiry has been started to investigate whether the judge’s warrant was inappropriate. A senior police official concurred: “It is bizarre that this warrant was ever signed in this case. It seems totally disproportionate.”

The case dates to the evening of Oct. 27, 2006, when Libération ran an article about a two-year suspended prison sentence that had just been handed to Niel in an investigation linked to prostitution. One reader comment posted under the article on the newspaper’s Web site under the pseudonym of Yves regretted that the sentence was not harsher, prompting Niel to sue Filippis, who was then publisher and under French law responsible for the content of the newspaper.

It wasn’t Niel’s first libel case against Libération: The newspaper has won four others Niel brought against it that are now under appeal, Lévy said.

Describing the events last Friday, Filippis asked, “Was it excess zeal of one judge, or is this a sign that life is going to become even tougher for journalists in France?”