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France: unparalleled attacks on press freedom

On 7 January 2015 two Islamists forced their way into the editorial offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed twelve people, among them some of France's best known caricaturists. Under the slogan "Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie) millions of people around the world rallied in public places and social networks to show their solidarity with the murdered journalists. Observers described the brutal attacks as the "9/11 of press freedom". Before the attack Charlie Hebdo had had a small print run of around 60,000, whereas the first issue after the attack sold seven million copies in France and twenty-five other countries.

Commemorating the victims of the terrorist attack. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

In response to the violence France reflected on its liberal values. Press freedom, in particular, has a long tradition in France: the first newspaper, called Strassburger Relationen, appeared in the seventeenth century. During the French Revolution the number of newspapers rose to 1,000. In 1881 press freedom was enshrined in the constitution. France is also home to the world's first news agency, Agence France Presse, founded in 1835.

Television plays a central role in public debate, in particular the 8pm news of the private broadcaster TF1 and the public station France 2. If a French president wants to address the nation he appears on France 2. France has one of the largest number of radio stations in the world, currently around 900. The public station Radio France broadcasts news and cultural and regional programmes.

France has a broad spectrum of print media. The national newspapers with the biggest readerships are Le Parisien, Le Figaro and Le Monde. Some regional newspapers, such as Ouest-France, reach a good deal more readers, however.

Since it is customary in France to combine economic and political interests with journalistic activities, the independence of the French media leaves something to be desired. Most of the media are owned by wealthy business people or industrialists, such as construction entrepreneur Martin Bouygues or Serge Dassault, the owner of an arms concern. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was well known for his good relations with both of these people. Some influential media figures also hold political office. Thus the director of the southern French regional newspaper La Dépêche du Midi is also chairman of the left-wing party Parti Radical de Gauche.

In July 2013 a court in Versailles ordered the investigative news portal to withdraw a report about a party donation scandal involving the billionaire Liliane Bettencourt. Bettencourt regarded the reports, based on conversations with her butler, as a violation of her private life. The recorded conversations helped to uncover the party donations affair involving Bettencourt and the conservative UMP party. Various media described the forced withdrawal of the reports as censorship. At the same time, a law passed in 2013 on protection of sources improved the position of journalists.

Press Freedom Index:

Reporters without Borders: 38th place (2015)
Freedom House: 33rd place (2015)

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