Balancing the ‘security of institutions’ with the protection of journalists’ sources

Le Monde, the French daily newspaper, has accused the office of President Nicolas Sarkozy of using the intelligence services to uncover the source of embarrassing news leaks from an investigation into allegations of high-level corruption (involving labour minister Eric Woerth) and alleged illegal party funding by France’s richest woman, L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

This allegation and probable legal action are particularly shocking as “reinforcing the protection of journalists’ sources” was one of President Sarkozy’s promises during his electoral campaign and a law to this end was passed in January of this year. If the newspaper’s allegations are true, a counter-espionage probe of this kind would be seen as a clear threat to press freedom and a contravention of the various existing guarantees in place that protect the anonymity of journalistic sources.

The Elysée Palace has responded with an unequivocal denial of Le Monde’s claims: “the presidency…never gave any instructions to any service at all,” an Elysee spokesperson told news agency AFP. Yet Le Monde’s editorial also highlighted intelligence officers reportedly obtained telephone records and confirmed that a senior government official, David Sénat, an adviser to justice minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, had spoken to the newspaper’s journalist Gérard Davet. Sénat has apparently been asked to step down and was offered a post in Cayenne, the capital of French Guyana.

Meanwhile, France’s national police chief, Frederic Pechenard, confirmed that a ministerial aide had been accused of releasing restricted information, but he stressed that evidence against the suspect was collected through a “legitimate investigation of the origin of leaks” performed under the auspices of the domestic intelligence service’s “mission to protect the security of institutions”. This latest chapter in the so-called Bettencourt-Woerth affair has undeniably mounted further pressure on President Sarkozy at a time when his approval rating is close to a record low.


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