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THE ART OF LEAKING

French lessons for media and democracy

Jean-Paul Marthoz

On May 29, under the brightly-lid chandeliers of the Versailles Palace, President Emmanuel Macron did not blink when, standing alongside Russian President Putin, he called RT and Sputnik News “propaganda tools”. He had an axe to grind. During the 2017 election campaign his electoral team had regularly accused the two Russian state media of relaying canards and disinformation on their candidate.

Macron’s message was blunt: “I have always had an exemplary relation with foreign journalists, at least when they are journalists. When press people broadcast libellous untruths they are no longer journalists, but organs of influence”.

The worst had come on May 5, on the last day of the official campaign, a few hours before the ”period of restraint” which prohibits the media and politicians from further comments on the electoral race. A torrent of documents, dubbed MacronLeaks, overwhelmed the Internet. Or tried to. They were the product of the hacking of email boxes of six of the candidate’s close advisers, and contained only trivial exchanges on the logistics of the campaign. But they also included sloppily fabricated stories which purported to show that La République en Marche’s whizz kid was soft on terrorism or held a secret account in a fiscal paradise.

The first to exploit these hacked documents were pro- Trump activists in the United States. A few minutes after the documents were posted on the 4chan forum, a well- known sanctuary of far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists, Trump supporter Jack Posobiec sent the link to his 100,000 Twitter followers.

The Art of Leaking - French lessons for media and democracy

“Constrained by their legal obligations the French mainstream media were impeded from reacting to these so-called ‘revelations’, wrote Sébastien Seibt on France 24 website on May 8, “while Marine Le Pen’s supporters had an open space on social networks to disseminate the so-called Macron Leaks”.

French mainstream media, however, were not impressed. Most articles started with a warning which effectively demolished the credibility of the leaks. “Qualified as MacronLeaks they reveal that the reproaches directed at Macron are fake news”, Jean-Marc Manach wrote in Slate.

In fact, the MacronLeaks coverage shows that a press which is forewarned is a press forearmed. The suspicion had been lurking for months that the liberal candidate would be targeted by fake news. He seemed to be the dream person that far right nationalists and left-wing populists love to hate. A self-avowed globalist, a multiculturalist, a defender of migration, a strong partisan of more European Union integration, he hit on all the nerves of self-proclaimed patriots and was seen as a natural target for fake news sites and extremist blogs.

The attacks on the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton were widely covered in France, and everyone in the newsrooms expected something to happen. The second run made it more probable and well-documented links between Marine Le Pen’s Front national party and Russian interests increased the expectations of dirty tricks.

When the inevitable happened, French media faced a challenge to cover it. Le Monde published a note to readers stating that it had seen the hacked emails and decided not to publish before the run-off. “Because the sheer volume of the hacked documents makes it impossible to analyze and fact check them with such a deadline,” said the paper, “and, above all, because these files have been published 48 hours before election day, with the obvious aim of damaging the integrity of the vote, at the time the candidates and their supporters are legally banned to respond to possible accusations”.

Misusing the fake news scare?

The fallout from MacronLeaks came in January 2018 when the newly-elected President announced plans for a law against fake news. “Macron’s measure would grant judges emergency powers to remove or block content deemed to be “fake” during sensitive election periods,” the Washington Post’s James McAuley wrote on January 10, 2018. “It would also require greater transparency for sponsored content and permit France’s media watchdog, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, to combat ‘any attempt at destabilization’ by foreign-financed media organisations.”

Press freedom groups were concerned that such measures, however well-intentioned, might infringe on freedom of expression. “A government cannot define what truth is,” said Pierre Haski, a renowned L’Obs columnist and the president of Reporters without Borders.

The questions piled up. Why adopt a new law when the old 1881 press law already bans “false news”? What kind of responsibility would be expected from social platforms? Some distinguished media warned against an overreaction to a phenomenon which should rather be confronted with fact-checking or media literacy.

The last thing the authorities want is an exposé of failings, incompetence or turf wars inside the “state security apparatus” which might have damning political consequences.

In an opinion piece in the liberal left weekly L’Obs, the famous and at times polemical essayist Emmanuel Todd was even blunter: “French people underestimate the power of disinformation from the state. If there is a producer of fake news it is the state! As the ruling classes no longer understand the reality that they have created, the voters’ behaviours, Trump, the Brexit… they want to ban. Not content with having the monopoly
of legitimate violence the State would like to have a monopoly on fake news.”

His resonating message was that democracies sometimes are less threatened by the attacks they suffer than by the way they react, or overreact, to them.

Leaks in the public interest

French authorities have not been sparing in their efforts to put a stop to journalism that covers areas they consider off-limits. They have put pressure5 on enterprising investigative journalists and their potential sources using the law against them, invoking the violation of state secrets or the risk posed to agents of the state.

The “war on terror” has brought another dimension to this constant tension between “les services” (intelligence and security agencies) and investigative journalists. It is true, of course, that reporting on terrorism also means reporting on counter-terrorism, and on the way the police, the intelligence services and the judiciary perform their duties. And the last thing the authorities want is an exposé of failings, incompetence or turf wars inside the “state security apparatus” that might have damning political consequences.

While media can be loud and hyperbolic in their coverage of jihadists. many are much more cautious when they investigate counter-terrorism. Some fear that exposing the mistakes and incompetence of security forces might be seen by the public as unpatriotic. Or they tread carefully for fear of being blacklisted and losing access precious sources inside the security services.

Such concerns were confirmed by a sensational news story on January 4, 2018. A reporter for the left-wing online site Mediapart alleged that the Paris anti terrorist police bungled the surveillance of a jihadist accused of murdering a Catholic priest in July 2016 in the church of Saint-Etienne du Rouvray, close to Rouen.

The jihadist’s exchanges on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, wrote Mediapart, had been closely monitored by a cybercop. In mid-June the jihadist mentioned attacking churches with a knife and called his followers
to attend his courses in a mosque in Saint-Etienne du Rouvray. The cybercop sent a note to his hierarchy. But for various reasons there was no follow-up. Even worse, after the crime was committed said Mediapart, the police asked the cybercop to change the date of his warning in order to cover up their blunder.

The police authorities denied part of the story, in particular the fact that the jihadist represented an immediate and direct danger, but the Paris prosecutor decided to investigate the case. “Who knew? Could the attack have been prevented?”, asked Rouen’s bishop, Mgr Lebrun.

There are different kinds of leaks. The Macron Leaks belong to the world of manipulation and distortion of the democratic process. Others, like the Swissleaks or the Panama Papers, are meant to hold public authorities to account.

They are part of the system of checks and balances which are at the heart of the democratic system. But
too often secrecy is being used not to protect legitimate national security interests but to hide gaffes or even illegal actions from the eyes of the public.

Such leaks protect a democratic society against abuses of power and can be useful to help the authorities to identify weaknesses in their fight against terrorism and take corrective measures. The truth is that unjustified cover- ups on crucial questions of public accountability can be much more damaging for democracy than a torrent of easily identifiable disinformation and fake news.

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Tagged with: data protection, Elections, Ethics and Sources, Europe, France, Handling sources, Media Law | Public Information Law, Media Literacy | Media and Information Literacy, populism, Russia, Western Europe