She spent the night in a cell. Since Tuesday, journalist Ariane Lavrilleux has been placed in custody at the Marseille Police Station, as part of a judicial investigation opened by the Paris prosecutor's office in July 2022 for compromising the secrecy of the National Defense and disclosure of the identity of soldiers, entrusted to the Directorate General of Internal Security (DGSI). This case arouses the indignation of the profession which denounces "an unprecedented attack on the freedom of the press".
What is he accused of?
According to Disclose, the DGSI accuses the journalist of "having disclosed confidential defense documents relating to the France's arms sales to foreign countries, some of which were used against civilian populations". In the viewfinder of the French secret services, five articles signed or co-signed by Ariane Lavrilleux. Among these, one concerns the French intelligence mission "Sirli", launched in February 2016 in Egypt in the name of the fight against terrorism.
🔴 Police custody @AriaLavrilleux: according to our information, the DGSI investigators accuse our journalist of having signed 5 articles on French arms sales abroad, published by @Disclose_ngo since 2019
— Disclose (@Disclose_ngo) September 20, 2023
The "Egypt Papers" series of investigations revealed in 2021 that the Egyptian government of Al-Sisi used information collected by French intelligence to carry out a "campaign of arbitrary executions". Air strikes on vehicles of suspected traffickers were reportedly carried out on the Egyptian-Libyan border, and not on jihadists as planned, causing many collateral casualties among civilians.
These attacks would have been made "with the complicity of the French state", had said Disclose, relying on "several hundred documents classified confidential-defense". Despite warnings from some officials about the excesses of the operation, the French authorities would not have questioned the mission.
Following this publication, the French Ministry of the Armed Forces filed a complaint for "violation of the secrecy of the National Defence". A preliminary investigation was opened in November 2021 and an investigating judge was appointed in the summer of 2022. It is in this context that the home and computer tools of Ariane Lavrilleux were searched Tuesday and she was placed in custody. The objective of this "unacceptable attack on press freedom" is "to identify our sources that made it possible to reveal the Sirli military operation", denounced Disclose.
What does the law say?
According to article 413-11-1 of the Criminal Code, any person not authorized to secrecy-defense who brings to the attention of the public an element classified as a defense secret can be punished "by five years' imprisonment and a fine of 75,000 euros". The journalist's sources face seven years in prison and a fine of 100,000 euros.
However, as a journalist, Ariane Lavrilleux is protected by article 2 of the law of 29 July 1881 on freedom of the press, which provides that "the confidentiality of journalists' sources is protected in the exercise of their mission of informing the public" and that a direct or indirect infringement "can in no case consist in an obligation for the journalist to reveal his sources". In other words, "the journalist has the right not to speak," explains to the Parisian Antoine Gitton, a lawyer specializing in press law.
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Other texts also protect journalists, such as Article 10 of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), texts of the Code of Criminal Procedure or Internal Security allowing, for example, journalists to refuse to express themselves before the courts and the police and to refuse to transmit files to them.
Aware of the risks of "breaking the law", the editorial staff of Disclose had explained in one of the articles of the series of investigations why it had nevertheless decided to reveal information classified as "confidential-defense". These "are of major public interest" and must be unveiled "in the name of a fundamental principle in democracy: the right to information", justified the media, adding that "defense secrecy cannot be invoked to cover a campaign of arbitrary executions against civilians".
What does it risk?
For the moment, "we are at the stage of the investigation, it is not a question of determining whether she is guilty or not but of determining whether there are sufficient charges that justify her referral to a trial court," explains Antoine Gitton. At the end of her police custody, Ariane Lavrilleux could go free or be referred to the prosecutor's office. The latter could then pronounce an indictment.
The investigation phase that would follow could end "with an order dismissing the case" or "a referral to a trial court". In the event of a trial, "there is a possibility that she will be sentenced to prison sentences". However, says Mr. Gitton, "I am not sure that the state wants to take the risk of appearing as the one who will pillorie a journalist to protect an undemocratic regime."
This is not the first time that journalists have been interviewed by the DGSI. In 2019, after revelations about the export of French weapons used in Yemen, and in 2021, about other arbitrary executions in Egypt, other Disclose journalists were interviewed by the French secret services. Reporters from Le Monde and Quotidien were also heard. On the sale of arms to Yemen, "after a year of investigation to identify our sources, the case was finally closed," recalls Disclose on its website.
Wave of support and outrage
The case has sparked a wave of support from various journalists' unions, newsrooms and press freedom organisations, both in France and abroad, as well as from some political parties. The profession as a whole denounced "an attack on the freedom of the press", "an unacceptable obstacle to the freedom to inform" and a "denial of democracy" a few weeks before the Estates General of Information promised by the Elysee.
Disclose also appealed for donations to defend the journalist. A committee of support for Ariane Lavrilleux gathered Tuesday evening in front of the Marseille Police Station. Other rallies are planned this Wednesday evening, in Rennes, Marseille, Lyon, Nice and Place de la République in Paris.