The big legal struggles over freedom of expression are usually about what you can and cannot say. In France, the debate of the day is about what you can and cannot see.
French photographers and editors are howling about proposed revisions to French law designed to offer protections to individuals caught by a camera in an incriminating or humiliating pose.
One revision would penalize the publication of photographs or video footage that shows someone in police handcuffs before any court conviction, on the grounds that such an image tarnishes the presumption of innocence. The other change would impose fines on publications that picture victims of crimes in a way that "undermines their dignity."
Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou said the changes, approved by both houses of Parliament last spring and subject to review early next year, strike "a balance between freedom of information and the rights of individuals."
But most of the media here believe the new law amounts to "a threat of censorship," in the words of Henri Cartier-Bresson, France's most renowned living photographer. "Everyone should be free to look [at images] and then to think whatever he wants."
Many opponents of the law see it as a veiled act of aggression against French paparazzi, who became notorious when they were investigated by authorities for their role in the 1997 car accident that killed Princess Diana. All charges against the photographers were dropped this month.
"Once again France is creating the most idiotic laws in the world," said Jean-Francois Leroy, director of a photojournalism festival in the city of Perpignan, where a movement was launched three weeks ago to protest the law. "France gave photography to the world, and now Mme Guigou seems to want a press without pictures."
The proposed revisions to the law were provoked in part by complaints from survivors of recent terrorist bombings in Paris. One of the survivors of a Paris subway attack in 1995 was pictured, from behind, with much of her clothing blown off.
SOS Attentats, a terrorist victims' rights organization, complained that the injured woman had begged photographers not to take her picture and said that publishing such an image makes a victim suffer twice from a crime.
But under the new law, according to Alain Genestar, editor of photo-driven Paris Match magazine, the public "would be deprived of the freedom to see the consequence of a crazed and criminal act." Railing in a recent broadside against the state's efforts to shield citizens from reality--"as you would a child"--Genestar asked, "Does the nanny state intend to become the master of our emotions?"
Le Monde, the Paris daily, asked Justice Ministry officials to comment in writing on the applicability of the law to a series of photographs, some of them historic and well known.
What about the 1968 photograph of Robert F. Kennedy lying on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after he was shot? The law would not apply, the officials said, because the prize-winning Bill Eppridge photograph in question allows the victim "to conserve his dignity."
The 1972 photograph of the young woman in Vietnam running naked down a road during a napalm bombing? Photographs of war, the Justice Ministry said, are not affected by the law--although many photographers and editors are skeptical of such assurances.
As for a 1945 photograph of emaciated prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp, even to raise the example "caricatures our bill," Guigou's staff wrote. "Our intention is not to forbid images of genocide or major persecutions."
Goksin Sipahioglu, owner and founder of the Sipa photo agency, said, "It is not a judge who should decide that this picture is important and this picture is not important."
A committee of affected parties has asked for a meeting early next month with Guigou to persuade her to drop the revisions to the code.