Censorship and Press Freedom in the Media
Peter J. Humphreys discusses in “Mass Media and Media Policy in Western Europe,” the history of freedom of press and media in France. Press freedom has a long past, beginning with the Age of Printing, and the development of the movable letterpress in the mid-fifteenth century. This invention created an industry and a demand for printed press, along with the desire for freedom of press. The Ancien Regime, the traditional authority of both state and church, practiced strict censorship and licensing laws of printed press, any breach of which would lead to confiscation or even imprisonment. American and French revolutions marked the end of these practices, with the 1791 First Amendment of the US Constitution and the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens. Both of these events marked the downfall of the traditional power structures of the elites and the rise of the “bourgeois,” liberal, capitalist, or middle classes of the industrial age. With this up rise of industrial capitalism came a large influx of consumption of news and information. Gaining financial independence freed press businesses greatly, bolstering the market. By 1881, during the Third Republic, ideas of freedom of assembly and press were introduced as common rights, and free press was achieved. Practices such as licensing and censorship were abandoned completely, and the press was free to engage in politics, dispute, and debate on authoritative structures legally.
This marked the inception of concepts of politically aligned newspapers and print articles. Ideas such as politics in press, “social responsibility,” and the “party press”, or politically biased news coverage (Humphreys 22) became commonplace. Today, papers such as “La Croix” and “L’Humanité,” serve as surviving examples of this politicization of the press. Further, a working class political press appeared, along with a market for popular and commercial newspapers, which delivered press and media to the masses. Papers such as these played a large role in spreading literacy, as well as commodifying newspapers as another good for the capitalist market, and increased sales. Eventually, this commercialization of the press led to a decline of overtly political press. After World War II, papers were experiencing competition and pressure to commercialize, as capitalism thrived. Also, post war sentiments led to an “ideological fatigue” (Humphreys 28). In order to be competitive, papers took care not to alienate customers, in order to make sales.
The 1980s, a new trend away from state power broke out. News agencies were no longer instruments of state control, as they had been previously. Rather, as Humphreys states, “They were now dedicated to the supply of objective factual information and were no longer the servants of officialdom that they once were” (35). Here, we see a return to the circulation of information, which is still politically divided, albeit not as blatant as once before. There still exists, however, divisions within the press, which have been debated in more recent past. One example of the exercise of press control occurred in 2004. One television titled, called “Al-Manar TV” was taken off the air for “anti-Semitic” content. French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin deemed the program as incompatible with French values, criticizing it of inciting hate and violence, which the channel had agreed not to do. Many Jewish groups in France protested the channel for portraying Zionism as a criminal conspiracy. The channel was suspended, as Raffarin expressed wishes that there were laws banning such content. For him, the press freedom rule meant that anti-Semitic content could be shown freely on television, a reality that worried him greatly. History of press freedom has created a need for the press market to be freed, and the only option for content such as this is restricted to private court cases, such as the one against Al-Manar.
Other instances, however, have been more favorable. More recent cases have shown that the media has taken full advantage of freedom of press. In a debate between editor of Marianne magazine and Paris correspondent of the Global Post in August 2010, the magazine, “Marianne”, was placed under fire, accused of pushing press freedom rights too far when they published a cover depicting Nicolas Sarkozy with the title “Le Voyou de la Republique,” or “The thug of the republic.” The line was in reference to Sarkozy’s heavily debated stance on immigration and crime in France. Eric Dior, foreign editor of Marianne, defended the cover, referencing France’s strong tradition of polemic journalism. Further, Mildrade Cherfils of Global Post states that there is a power struggle between the “body politic” and the press. She notes that the press is now pushing the government, seeing how far they can go when in the past, the press felt limited in their rights to free speech and behaved rather timidly. (France24). Here is an example of the practice of press freedom. Although accused of “going too far,” it is clear that Marianne is simply exercising its rights. One of the main components of freedom of press is the right to disagree with the authority publicly and in print. While freeing the press has led to some scandal, it is ultimately an arm of freedom of speech. Individual issues are dealt with accordingly as such.
Another recent scandal surrounding press freedom occurred between France’s “Le Monde” newspaper and, once again, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been accused of attacking press freedom. The president is suspected of sending an illegal probe, or spy, into Le Monde’s, for releasing an issue of their daily newspaper accusing Sarkozy of sending an illegal probe to investigate one of their stories regarding a donation made by L’Oreal heiress Lilianne Bettencourt in return for tax cuts. Bettencourt has been under police investigation, and Le Monde has called it a “[misuse] of state power to muzzle the media.” (France 24).
While some cases of press freedom do need to be stopped, such as blatantly racist “Al-Manar TV,” press freedom is ultimately a common right of speech. It seems Sarkozy has unjustly abused his power as president to suppress these rights, using his advantage as president to gain power over the media. The struggle between government and media is not clear-cut, as some instances require some supervision. The misuse of power for personal gain at the expense of the media in intolerable, and negates the whole process of freeing the press from state control. Sarkozy has, in both instances, shown uses of state control in the media. In some cases of slander and racism, appropriate action should be taken through proper mediums such as the court system, yet neither the president, nor anyone else should suppress proper selling of researched information. The media’s struggle has proved to be useful as a powerful tool for communication of information. The undoing of this struggle could lead to misinformation and undo years of the education provided by the media.
Humphreys, Peter J. Mass Media and Media Policy in Western Europe. Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 1996. Pp 18-41.
Usher, Sebastian. “French Seek ‘Anti-Semitic’ TV Ban.” BBC News. 3 December, 2004. 27 September 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4064317.stm
"Le Monde' Reignites L'Oréal controversy." Focus. France 24. 28/09/2010.
"L'Oréal Scandal: Shooting the Messanger?" Talking Points. France 24. 12/07/2010.
"Sarkozy Under Fire: is the Media Going too far?." Talking Points. Aurélien Aeberhard & Laura Farrenq (Producers). France 24. 11/08/2010.