France's prime minister on Thursday defended the interrogation by the secret service of three reporters who published details over French arms sales to the Gulf, after an outcry by press freedom activists. Two reporters from the investigative news site Disclose and one correspondent with Radio France were interrogated this week by the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI), France's domestic intelligence organisation.
They had worked on a Disclose story based on a leaked military intelligence dossier, which showed how French tanks, artillery and ships sold to France's allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were being used in the war in Yemen. Geoffrey Livolsi and Mathias Destal of Disclose were questioned on Tuesday and Radio France's Benoit Collombat on Wednesday. Livolsi and Destal subsequently denounced their questioning as an "attempt at intimidation".
But Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said while he respected the journalists' right to report, there were also matters which should remain confidential. "Firstly, I don't think that it intimidates them and secondly it is not done to intimidate them," he told Franceinfo radio.
He described as "very respectable... the desire of journalists to look for information and present it to their readers and their listeners." "But from where I stand, with the responsibilities that I have, as prime minister, I must also respect the law and notably the provisions related to confidentiality," he added. There has been huge controversy in France over whether French arms have been used against civilians in Yemen.
The Paris government denies this. But the arrival of a Saudi ship earlier this month off the French port of Le Havre provoked a new outcry and the vessel never docked. Relief agencies say the Yemen conflict, which has lasted more than four years, has killed tens of thousands, including many civilians.
Livolsi and Destal issued a statement saying they had maintained their right to silence during questioning. But they also stated they had "acted as part of their mission to inform the public, thus contributing to a debate of general interest on the export of arms".
Collombat said he had been presented with seven pages of questions like those presented to the Disclose reporters and "did not respond", pointing to his right to keep sources secret. "It sends a clear signal to journalists who want to investigate a subject that concerns all our citizens," he told AFP.
The three reporters were questioned as part of a preliminary investigation overseen by the anti-terror department of Paris prosecutors. Senior journalists from 37 French media, including Agence France-Presse (AFP), Le Figaro daily, France 2 TV and Mediapart website signed a statement supporting the three journalists saying they were "just doing their work".
(With inputs from agencies.)