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The Press: Vive la Watergaffe!

2 minute read

One cold December evening three years ago, a cartoonist for Le Canard Enchaîné, the satirical Paris weekly, happened to visit the new offices that the paper was about to occupy. He found a band of “plumbers” busily installing listening devices. On being discovered, the plumbers all fled, but the magazine filed a civil suit against the unidentified intruders, charging invasion of privacy.

The Canard accused the government of committing a “Watergaffe.” It believed that the eavesdroppers were from the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), the French counterintelligence service. It even published names of eleven suspects unearthed by its own reporters. The Interior Ministry promptly classified the work of the eleven agents top secret, thus making them immune from any court questioning.

Judge Hubert Pinsseau has finally dismissed the case, not because of the government’s obstruction but because he concluded that no wrong had been done. The Canard had no right to privacy, Judge Pinsseau ruled, because the privacy law covers only private residences. Furthermore, he noted, the intruders had never actually finished installing their bugs. Even if the editors had been at work and even if someone had listened in on them, he declared, there could be no invasion of privacy because journalists “cannot and in principle could not conduct in their professional offices conversations of anything other than a political, general or professional nature. This of necessity excludes references to their private lives.”

An appeal has been filed, but until and unless a higher court overturns this judgment, the long but unofficial tradition of bugging journalists is henceforth decreed legal in France.

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