Atempted Raid on News Site’s Offices Prompts Outcry in France

The Mediapart journalist Fabrice Arfi, at the microphones, and his colleague Edwy Plenel, right of him, at a news conference in Paris on Monday defending their news site.CreditPhilippe Lopez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By Aurelien Breeden – New Tork Times

  • February 8, 2019

ARIS — French journalists and press advocates expressed outrage this week after prosecutors tried to search the offices of the investigative news site Mediapart, which had published audio recordings of a former aide to President Emmanuel Macron whose legal troubles have dogged him for months.

The outcry over possible executive overreach grew following reportsthat information from the prime minister’s office had pushed the Paris prosecutor to open the inquiry that prompted the search.

“This investigation is nothing else than a hunt for our sources which aims to prevent us from seeking and finding the truth,” said Fabrice Arfi, who leads Mediapart’s investigations department.

When two prosecutors and three police officers arrived Monday morning to search Mediapart’s offices in Paris, they were turned away.The news site was not legally obliged to submit to the search linked to the disgraced former aide, Alexandre Benalla, because of the preliminary nature of the investigation into a possible violation of privacy and the illegal possession of wiretapping devices.

Still, French journalists and their supporters saw the move as new proof of the adversarial stance toward the media of Mr. Macron, who recently faced pushback after deciding to move the press room outside of the Élysée Palace, the seat of the presidency.

Journalists at dozens of publications issued a statement this week expressing “solidarity with our colleagues” at Mediapart. The National Union of Journalists — referring to the attempted raid and to laws passed this year on the protection of trade secrets and on so-called fake news — described it as worrying that “journalists’ duty to inform can be flouted in this way, in France, in 2019.”

The episode was the latest of many tied to Mr. Benalla, who was firedlast summer as a security aide to Mr. Macron after it was revealed he had hit a protester at a May 1 demonstration.

Once billed the most serious threat to Mr. Macron, the Benalla affair died down and was eclipsed in France’s news cycle by the “Yellow Vest” economic protests against the president — until a steady stream of news reports in recent weeks raised questions about how the Élysée had handled the earlier case, and whether Mr. Benalla had used his ties to the presidency to obtain business contracts.

In the audio recordings, which date to July and which Mediapart published last week as part of a wider investigation, Mr. Benalla can be heard discussing the case against him with Vincent Crase, who had also worked on security for the Élysée and for Mr. Macron’s party, and who is being investigated over accusations similar to those against Mr. Benalla.

“Crazy thing, yesterday evening the boss sent me a message; he says to me: ‘You’ll eat them alive. You’re stronger than them, that’s why I had you beside me,’” Mr. Benalla is heard saying, referring to Mr. Macron, who was still publicly supportive at the time.

Mr. Crase and Mr. Benalla were under legal orders not to see each other because of the investigations, and they could face repercussions for the meeting.

Each revelation about Mr. Benalla has sprouted another, leading to a complex entanglement of legal inquiries around him. He is also facing investigations into his continued use of a diplomatic passport after he was fired and his involvement, while still working at the Élysée, in the negotiation of a security contract between a company owned by Mr. Crase and a Russian oligarch with ties to President Vladimir V. Putin.

Édouard Philippe, France’s prime minister, confirmed Thursday in an interview with the newspaper Paris-Normandie that his office had informed Rémy Heitz, the Paris prosecutor, about suggestions from journalists that the recordings Mediapart published might have been taped at the home of Mr. Philippe’s head of security.

But Mr. Philippe said in the interview that the only goal had been to share potentially useful information in the cases against Mr. Benalla, not prompt a separate inquiry into Mediapart.

“No instructions were given to the prosecutor’s office,” Mr. Philippe said. “We never do on individual cases.”

Mr. Heitz’s office did not respond to requests for comment on Friday. Mr. Macron’s office declined to comment, citing the continuing investigations. His government has rejected accusations it had a hand in the attempted search of Mediapart’s offices.

Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet said in Parliament that there had been no “manipulation” of the justice system and that freedom of the press and the protection of journalists’ sources were “cornerstones for our democracy.”

“That is the concept of justice that is supported by this government,” she said.

Delphine Meillet, a lawyer in Paris who specializes in press law, said police raids on the offices of news outlets were “extremely rare” in France, with only a handful of cases in the past few decades. Journalists have a legal right not to reveal their sources.

But Ms. Meillet noted that French prosecutors are not independent. They answer to their hierarchy, the Justice Ministry and, as a result, to the executive. Mr. Macron was much more closely involved in the nomination of the Paris prosecutor than his predecessor, François Hollande.

That puts prosecutors in a difficult spot when the president is connected to an investigation, Ms. Meillet said, especially in this case, because “it’s not just any media that they were going to search.”

Mediapart, an online, subscription-based publication, has garnered a reputation in France for hard-hitting investigations of politicians and other officials, with direct consequences, including the downfall of a budget minister and the opening of an investigation into possible Libyan financing of former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign.

The company’s publisher, Edwy Plenel, said at a news conference after Monday’s attempted search that Mediapart was “violating the privacy of no one” and that it was “publishing information in the public interest.”

Mr. Macron’s political opponents seized on the case as proof of his monarchical leadership and lack of appetite for dissent.

“Intimidations against the press, a law that restricts the right to demonstrate, police violence, antimigrant policies — each day the current administration is shrinking bit by bit the space for fundamental rights in France,” Benoît Hamon, who ran against Mr. Macron as a Socialist in the 2017 presidential elections, said on Twitter.

Mr. Arfi, the Mediapart journalist, said Mr. Macron “hasn’t gotten to the point of calling us ‘enemy of the people,’ but he says we no longer seek the truth,” referring to his criticism of the news media last year, after the accusations against Mr. Benalla were first reported.

Mr. Macron, Mr. Arfi said, “is developing a very worrying contempt for journalism.”

Follow Aurelien Breeden on Twitter: @aurelienbrd.

Juliette Hirsch contributed reporting.