At the origin of revelations about French military aid diverted in Egypt, journalist Ariane Lavrilleux was placed in police custody on Tuesday, then released. A rare measure denounced by defenders of the press.
“It is a clear, clear and precise attack against the freedom to inform”, Ariane Lavrilleux was indignant at the franceinfo microphone, Friday September 22. The journalist from the investigative media Disclose was placed in police custody on Tuesday in Marseille, as part of an investigation published in November 2021, which revealed a possible Egyptian hijacking of a French intelligence operation in the country.
After almost 40 hours of interrogation, Ariane Lavrilleux was released Wednesday evening around 9 p.m., free and without prosecution at this stage. But many media and journalists expressed their indignation, denouncing a “unacceptable obstacle to freedom of information”. Asked about the matter, the government declined to comment. Franceinfo returns to this affair.
An investigation into the misappropriation of French military aid in Egypt
In this investigation, adapted for television in the France 2 magazine “Complément d’investigation”, the media Disclose revealed that the French intelligence mission Sirli, launched in February 2016 in Egypt, had been hijacked by the Egyptian state. This mission was aimed at the fight against terrorism, but according to the investigative media, its aim was “another ambition”of “selling weapons to the Egyptian dictatorship” of General Fatah Al-Sissi.
Cairo then used the information collected in this operation to carry out airstrikes on suspected smugglers’ vehicles on the Egypt-Libya border.
According to secret defense documents obtained by Disclose, “French forces were allegedly involved in at least 19 bombings against civilians between 2016 and 2018” in this area. Despite the concerns and warnings of certain officials about the excesses of the operation, the French authorities would not have called the mission into question.
Judicial investigation opened in July 2022
Following these revelations, the French Ministry of the Armed Forces filed a complaint for “violation of national defense secrecy”. A preliminary investigation was opened in November 2021 before an investigating judge was appointed in the summer of 2022. In this context, justice ordered last Tuesday the placement in police custody of Ariane Lavrilleux and a search at his home. The journalist is accused of “compromising national defense secrets” and “revealing information that could lead to the identification of a protected agent”.
“They were trying to intimidate me. And above all, to find out what the sources were with Disclose”told Ariane Lavrilleux on franceinfo, after her release. “TAll my work tools, including my computer, were searched. Cyber surveillance tools were used to search my emails. It’s a very violent experience, even more so when you’re in France, theoretically a democracy.”
🔴”It’s a manipulation technique by the intelligence services to get you to come to the table.” @AriaLavrilleux released from 39 hours of custody by the DGSI for having investigated arms exports from France to dictatorships. @Disclose_ngo
She testifies for RSF ↓ pic.twitter.com/WJlL3wZxEC
— RSF (@RSF_inter) September 21, 2023
While only the Disclose article relating to the Sirli operation initially seemed to be at the center of the investigation, the online investigation site clarified on X (formerly Twitter) that, according to its information, “the DGSI (General Directorate of Internal Security) investigators accuse [la] journalist for having signed five articles on French arms sales abroad, published in the media since 2019.
A former soldier indicted
A former soldier, suspected of being Ariane Lavrilleux’s source, was also indicted on Thursday in Paris. He is accused of “misappropriation” and “disclosure of national defense secrets”, two offenses punishable by 7 years of imprisonment and a fine of one million euros. He was placed under judicial supervision.
The Paris prosecutor’s office specified that after the opening of the preliminary investigation at the end of 2021, “the investigations were aimed at implicating a member of the Ministry of the Armed Forces”. The investigation was entrusted to the Military Affairs and Attacks on State Security section of the Paris public prosecutor’s office. The public prosecutor added that “the content of the investigations [demeurait] covered by the secrecy of the instruction. Contacted by AFP, the former soldier’s lawyer did not wish to comment.
Media and NGOs denounce an attack on “source secrecy”
The announcement of Ariane Lavrilleux’s custody sparked deep indignation among journalists. In an open letter published Thursday, around forty journalists’ companies (SDJ), including those of Médiapart, France Télévisions or France 24, denounced a “extremely serious situation” and an “unprecedented attack on the secrecy of sources”. The secrecy of journalistic sources has been protected under French law since 2010 with the Dati lawwhich supplemented the 1881 law on freedom of the press.
So, “the secrecy of the sources cannot be infringed directly or indirectly”unless “an overriding imperative of public interest justifies it and if the measures envisaged are strictly necessary and proportionate”. Furthermore, “this infringement can in no case consist of an obligation for the journalist to reveal his sources”specifies the law.
🔴 Thank you for your mobilization! @AriaLavrilleux is free ! The journalist of @Disclose spent more than 39 hours in police custody for revealing France’s involvement in a military operation in Egypt. pic.twitter.com/0aDhYfWyXZ
— RSF (@RSF_inter) September 21, 2023
Several NGOs, such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Amnesty International, also condemned the measure. Support rallies took place on Wednesday in several cities, such as Paris, Lyon and Marseille. In Paris, the boss of the Socialist Party, Olivier Faure, present alongside deputies Julien Bayou (EELV) and Raquel Garrido (LFI), called for “constitutionalize the right to protection of sources”.
The government refuses to react
The government spokesperson, Olivier Véran, refused on Wednesday to answer several questions on this affair, during the report of the Council of Ministers. “This is not the place to answer this question, I do not want to evade (…) I prefer to express myself with full knowledge of all the elements”he defended himself.
For his part, “the Minister of Culture always defends press freedom, but never comments on ongoing legal proceedings”Rima Abdul Malak’s office informed AFP.
Asked by The worldthe Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, assured that she did not have the elements to express herself on the matter. “As guarantor of the independence of justice, the president [de la République] cannot comment on an ongoing legal case which seeks to determine whether or not the law has been respected.”also responded to the Elysée World.
Several “attacks” on the press in recent years
During a press conference, Ariane Lavrilleux considered that her arrest took place “after attacks” against freedom of the press “which are essentially multiplying under the presidency of Emmanuel Macron”.
In recent years, several journalists and media outlets have been summoned by the DGSI or targeted by the courts. In 2019, journalist Ariane Chemin du World was thus questioned by the DGSI in the context of the Benalla affair. After revealing the use of French weapons in the war in Yemen, the co-founders of the investigative media Disclose were interviewed by the intelligence services.
The same year, a journalist from the program “Quotidien” was summoned by the DGSI after having worked on arms sales from France to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In 2022, three journalists from Radio France’s investigation unit were summoned to the DGSI after the publication of an investigation into suspicions of influence peddling within the French army.
Finally, the journalist Alex Jordanov, author of a book on internal intelligence, was indicted in June 2022, in particular for disclosure of defense secrets.