Update: After protest from civic organisations, media and citizens, on 26 November, the Prime Minister announced that an independent committee will be in charge of rewriting article 24 of the law, concerning the spreadin of images of the police.

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Update: On 24 November 2020, the law was approved by the Assemblée Nationale. It will be discussed in January by the Senate. Read more: https://www.euronews.com/2020/11/24/brussels-tells-france-to-protect-journalists-as-mps-are-set-to-back-controversial-security.

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Analysis by Amnesty International France, published on 12 Nov. 2020, translated from French, original article accessible here 

From 17 to 20 November, the National Assembly is scheduled to examine the so-called “Global Security” bill, supported by MPs from the governing majority. If such a law were to enter into force as it stands, it would constitute a serious violation of the right to information, respect for privacy, and freedom of peaceful assembly, three conditions that are essential to the right to freedom of expression.  

We deplore the fact that this bill is being examined under an accelerated procedure when there is no urgency to do so. This has already been the case in recent years for several laws with a strong impact on human rights (the Intelligence Act, the SILT Act, the so-called “anti-rioters law”). This procedure de facto restricts their in-depth examination and informed communication to society. We regret that this text is no exception to the rule. 

PREVENTING THE DISSEMINATION OF POLICE VIDEOS 

The proposed law provides for major obstacles to the possibility of filming and disseminating images of law enforcement officials, that is essential in a state governed by the rule of law. In recent years, many videos taken by journalists or ordinary citizens have made cases of human rights violations public. We believe that this proposed law would lead France to be out of line with its international human rights commitments. Any restriction on these rights must be subject to strict compliance with the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality, enshrined in international law. We alert parliamentarians to the serious risks of such a proposal for the right to freedom of expression and call on them to mobilise in the context of the parliamentary review to delete Article 24 of the proposal.   

A MAJOR RISK FOR THE FREEDOM TO INFORM  

Article 24 of the bill provides for very heavy penalties (up to one-year imprisonment and a fine of 45,000 euros) for broadcasting videos in which police officers or gendarmes are identifiable “with the aim of causing physical or psychological harm”. In practice, this provision opens the way to divergent and arbitrary interpretations, in particular of the notion of psychological harm. If adopted, it will hamper the work of journalists. Citizens will no longer be able to provide evidence of police violence. We ourselves use such videos, after analysis and authentication, in our research. With such a provision, the possibility of making live videos disappears, for fear of punishment, adds to the risk of censorship by social networking platforms. This will constitute a major risk for freedom of information, an essential corollary of the right to freedom of expression.  

Any restriction on the right to disseminate images of law enforcement officials must pursue a legitimate objective (national security, public order, rights of others) and be strictly necessary and proportionate. While in certain specific situations the ban on filming and broadcasting may be legitimate, for example during an anti-terrorist operation, the impediments to freedom of information contained in this bill will lead to human rights violations not being documented. This could contribute to a culture of impunity which ultimately damages the image of law enforcement agencies and contributes to undermining the necessary bond of trust between law enforcement agencies and the population.    

A DANGER TO THE RIGHT TO PRIVACY AND THE RIGHT TO DEMONSTRATE  

The proposed Global Security Act also expands the possibility for the police to film citizens by using more walking cameras (Article 21) or ” air operated ” cameras and even drones (Article 22). We call on parliamentarians to delete or substantially amend these articles. Police officers will now have direct access to the recordings (Article 21), which they were previously prohibited from accessing. This could prove problematic in the event of investigations into illegal practices by law enforcement agencies. Admittedly, these cameras could deter some police officers from using force. But if they are given the choice to start or stop the recordings, there is a risk that they will be biased and selective. We recommend the utmost caution when law enforcement officers carry walking cameras: the risks to fundamental rights, in particular the right to privacy, the right to dignity of the persons being filmed and the right to demonstrate, must be taken into account.   

Moreover, with Article 22 extending the use of UAVs, the risk of being filmed may deter people from participating in peaceful gatherings, in particular, if they fear subsequent prosecution for the mere fact of having participated. This has already been the case in France. We have already documented situations where demonstrators gathered to defend the rights of carers, for example, have been fined after being identified by surveillance cameras. They were fined for taking part in a banned demonstration, even though this ban by the government was later found to be illegal because it was disproportionate. 

 MASS SURVEILLANCE UNDERWAY  

As it stands, the proposed law opens up the possibility of being filmed by law enforcement officers in practically all public spaces. The rapporteurs would even like to facilitate the transmission of videos of residential buildings to the authorities. There is nothing in the current draft law to guarantee that the images captured by the authorities will not ultimately be processed by facial recognition software, a technology that is still under development.   

All over the world, we are calling for a ban on the use of systems that would allow indiscriminate or even mass surveillance by both state agencies and private sector actors. However, in this bill, which provides that authorities will be able to film people in the public space to a very large extent, amendments have already been tabled to introduce facial recognition. This would be a disproportionate infringement of the right to privacy. We therefore request that France explicitly rule out the possibility of using it.  The restrictions on the right to film the police, contained in this bill, and the extension of the right of law enforcement agencies to film citizens are contrary to France’s international obligations. These two concomitant developments run counter to our recommendations for policing based on dialogue, de-escalation and respect for human rights. 

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