French government accused of tightening media control
June 26th, 2008

The French government today fought off accusations it was tightening its grip on public television after President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled major changes. Sarkozy announced that the head of France Télévisions would be named by the government instead of by an independent body as part of an overhaul that will see the end of advertising on the network’s five channels from next year.

The opposition Socialists said the change was a “serious blow to the independence of the media”, and the media watchdog group Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) described it as “unacceptable.” Responding to the attacks, Culture Minister Christine Albanel said in an interview with France Info radio that “there are enough safety locks in place and oversight so that we cannot say that this is a government takeover. This is absurd. It is absolutely not the goal of the law.”

She argued that it was “logical for the shareholder to name France Téléevisions’ executives” and that the nomination process would be “completely monitored in a democratic way.” The head of France Télévisions had until now been appointed by the CSA broadcasting council, a nine-member body appointed by the president and two parliament speakers. Under the new rules, the executive will appoint the president of France Télévisions after receiving proposals from the CSA and on condition that the choice is backed by a majority of members of parliament.

The move drew fire from within cabinet ranks with the junior minister for Europe Jean-Pierre Jouyet remarking “To say it clearly, I would have preferred that he be named by parliament.” But Jouyet added that the current system under which the president of public TV was named by the CSA had not “led to much more independence” for the national broadcaster.

Former Socialist culture minister Jack Lang described the move as a “return to the pre-1981 period” when government held sway over the heads of public television and radio. Describing the move as “worrisome”, RSF said “Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision gives back to the executive the capacity to control the editorial line of public media. This is unacceptable in 2008 in a democratic country like France.”

Sarkozy has described his plan as a “cultural revolution” in France, but critics see it as a power play from the president who has been accused more than once of trying to meddle with the media.

Sarkozy also announced that the loss in advertising revenue for public television would be offset by a new tax on Internet and telephone providers of 0.9 percent. But Yves Le Mouel, head of the French telecommunications federation, vowed to “do everything in our power” to prevent the bill with its new tax from entering into force.

(Source: AFP)