France's interior ministry on Thursday defended a new law that makes it illegal for anyone other than professional journalists to film and distribute images of real-world violence, saying judges will ensure that the measure does not infringe on freedom of expression.
Critics say the law is a clumsy, if well-intentioned, effort to fight "happy slapping," the ill-named youth fad of filming orchestrated violence and sharing the images on the Web or between mobile phones.
The measure, part of a broad new anti-crime law championed by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy that took effect on Wednesday, will be subject to up to five years in prison and 75,000 euros (US$98,600) in fines.
French press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders expressed concerns on Wednesday that the law could open the door to prosecution of "citizen journalists" who "can play a role in monitoring the activities of the authorities throughout the world" and exposing injustices.
Sarkozy spokesman Franck Louvrier said the law was aimed to fight contrived violence and insisted that courts will be able to distinguish between whistleblowers and criminals. Sarkozy is a top contender in the French two-round presidential election next month and in May.
"A judge understands the difference between a `happy slapping' video and a `citizen's video' very well," he said. "This law notably targets `happy slapping' operations, and a judge will know how to apply the law."
Experts said the law is the first of its kind in Europe. Ligue Odebi, an association that seeks to protect freedom of expression on the Internet, said the measure will also hinder citizens' ability to expose police brutality.
"This makes France the Western country that most infringes on freedom of expression and information -- particularly on the Internet," the group said in a statement on its Web site, www.odebi.org.
The measure has implications for online video sites like YouTube, or France's Dailymotion.com. Authorities could ask them to identify the sources of images made available through their sites.
The French law says that professional journalists are exempt. But Loic Le Meur, one of France's best-known bloggers, said that "the distinction between professional and amateur journalists is getting harder to make out."