The censorship of French TV CNews before the ECHR

A TV censorship case before the ECHR

By Nicolas Bauer1664282356229

A case pitting CNEWS against the French government at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The ECLJ has been able to consult the "CNEWS v. France" case file, containing the Government's arguments against the TV channel. They are a revealing look at the state of freedom of expression on Islam and immigration in France—opinion column published in Valeurs Actuelles (September 14, 2022).

During the 2022 presidential campaign, the French government had to justify itself before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for censoring Éric Zemmour on the program "C à vous" (France 5). Zemmour had, in fact, been condemned in 2017 for certain remarks hostile to immigration and Islam. This is the Zemmour vs. France case, which has yet to be judged by the ECHR. European judges will have to decide between Éric Zemmour, who is invoking his freedom of expression, and the French government, which is promoting censorship of "hate speech."

Meanwhile, a similar case is also before the ECHR. This time, it is CNEWS who is invoking its freedom of expression and attacking the Government before the European judges. The TV channel considers itself the victim of censorship due to a decision by the Conseil supérieur de l'audiovisuel (CSA) [the French Broadcasting Council] concerning a "Face à l'info" program in 2019. In this program, comments made by Éric Zemmour, then a journalist with CNEWS, were deemed by the CSA to incite hatred and violence against Muslims.

The government's arguments against CNEWS, recently submitted to the ECHR, deserve to be made public.

A debate on immigration

Let's start by recalling the facts. A debate was held on CNEWS in October 2019 between François Pupponi, then a Socialist MP, and Éric Zemmour. Zemmour said: “Immigration, Islam, and Islamism, they're all the same subject,” while referring to the need to take "radical measures" against immigration. He went on to say: "When you come to France, and you're French, you have to change your point of view, and you have to see history in terms of France's interests (...). When General Bugeaud arrived in Algeria, he started massacring Muslims and even some Jews. Today, I'm on General Bugeaud's side[;] that's being French".

Éric Zemmour explained that he had assimilated by appropriating his country's history, including the events that dishonored France. He chose an example that concerned him directly, as he comes from a family of Algerian Jews. In a decision handed down in November 2019, however, the CSA ruled that this was hate speech and incitement to violence, which CNEWS should not have allowed to pass. The CSA criticized Christine Kelly, the host of "Face à l'info," for "a lack of on-air control" and put CNEWS on notice to ensure that, in the future, there would be "no incitement to hatred or violence for reasons of race, sex, morals, religion, or nationality." It is this CSA decision, validated by the Council of State in June 2021, that is being challenged by CNEWS before the ECHR.

The Government's arguments

In June 2022, the French government intervened in the case, sending its arguments to the ECHR in defense of the CSA's decision. According to the Government, CNEWS "has no grounds for denying its responsibility," particularly since "television has a particularly powerful impact on the formation of public opinion." It insists Christine Kelly should at least have provided a "nuance or contradiction" or "asked Mr. Zemmour to clarify his remarks." The Government invites the ECHR to consider that the comments made "were broadcast at a time likely to attract large audiences, by a media personality whose arrival on CNEWS boosted the channel's audience ratings in the "Face à l'info" time slot."

On the substance of the matter, the Government told the ECHR that "the scope of this sequence must be assessed in the light of all the comments made by the columnist [Zemmour] during the program. On several occasions, he made stigmatizing remarks about Muslims, associating the problems caused by immigration with Islam, confusing Islam with Islamism or 'radical' Islam, and essentially portraying Muslims as dangerous people as a whole." The government also added that Zemmour “defends, as a condition of integration into the national community, the fact of assuming responsibility for massacres committed against people of this [Muslim] faith.”

Other arguments put forward by the government against CNEWS are less substantial and more of the usual verbiage, denouncing, for example, a “conflation likely to convey religious stereotypes, likely to stigmatize.”

A “case with future impact”

In a letter to the French government, the ECHR warned that its dispute with CNEWS "could constitute a case with impact." In other words, the ECHR's future judgment in CNEWS v. France could provide general guidance not only for France but also for the other 45 member states of the Council of Europe. The ECHR could, on the occasion of this judgment, deepen its jurisprudence on freedom of expression in the media. The Government is therefore taking this case quite seriously.

At the ECHR, some political cases are decided partly behind the scenes. Journalist Bastien Lejeune, in an investigation for Valeurs Actuelles, implied that this was the case with Zemmour v. France. Lejeune noted the "close ties between Emmanuel Macron and the heads of [the ECHR]." In particular, he referred to the Government’s "personal affinity with the man who counts at the ECHR: the influential head of its president's cabinet, Patrick Titiun." Questioned on this subject by MP Emmanuelle Ménard, the Government did not deny this particular link. In October 2021, Macron hosted a reception at the Élysée Palace in Titiun's honor to promote him to the rank of Officer of the Legion of Honor. The ceremony was attended by the President of the ECHR and the French judge.


CNEWS upsets the government

The ECHR has already rejected appeals similar to that of CNEWS. In 2010, it rejected an application by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had been convicted for declaring that "the day we have not 5 million, but 25 million Muslims, they will be in charge. And the French will stay close to the walls, walk down the sidewalks, and lower their eyes." In 2018, the ECHR upheld the conviction of an Austrian lecturer who considered that "Muslims come into conflict with democracy and our system of values" and described the relationship between Muhammad and the young Aisha (aged nine) as "pedophilia." If CNEWS' appeal is rejected, this will confirm a trend in jurisprudence in favor of censorship.

Beyond this case, which the ECHR is expected to hear within the next two years, the Government's arguments testify to its concern about the success of CNEWS and Zemmour in the early days of "Face à l'info." It notes that "the launch of the program (...) resulted in a sharp increase in the channel's audience" and that "this program also finds an important relay on social networks and in public debate, given the notoriety of the columnist." And the Government adds: "Such notoriety that this columnist subsequently became a candidate in the election for the presidency of the French Republic."

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