On Tuesday, September 19, 2023, French journalist Ariane Lavrilleux was taken into custody and her home in Marseille was searched by French intelligence officers (DGSI) over allegations she made in a report about the misuse of French intelligence by Egyptian authorities on the border with Libya, which led to the killing of civilians.
Police searched Lavrillat’s property for 10 hours and checked her computer and mobile devices, then she was taken into custody and interrogated for 40 hours. Police questioned her about her 2021 investigation for the publication of Disclose, which said France had supplied sophisticated intelligence-gathering equipment to the Egyptian regime to “fight terrorism,” but it was used on the Egyptian-Libyan border to track smugglers and target civilians with deadly force. After the article was published, the French Ministry of the Armed Forces filed a lawsuit claiming “violation of state defense secrets.” The French journalist could now face up to five years in prison for allegedly disclosing confidential information. Lavrillier’s lawyer Virginie Marquet said that her client was interrogated by police officers of the French intelligence service DGSI as part of an investigation into the discrediting of national security.
” At the moment I don’t know if I will be able to avoid criminal responsibility. I don’t know if I won’t be charged in the next few days or a few months, it’s not impossible. It’s a very difficult experience, especially when you are in France, which is theoretically a democratic state,” Ariane Lavrilleux told Franceinfo.
Lavrillier’s investigation revealed that a series of extrajudicial killings were carried out under the supervision of the French military, which was reported to the then current French President François Hollande and then his successor Emmanuel Macron. The French military allegedly began expressing doubts as early as April 2016 when it became clear to them that the Egyptian military was using them to kill civilians living in the impoverished Mersa Matrouh region rather than to fight terrorists. Although the commanders were informed, nothing was done to stop the operation or at least review it.
Dispose journalists, who published an investigation by Ariane Lavrilleux, believe that the French state wants to identify those who allowed them to reveal, through confidential documents, French complicity in potential crimes against humanity in Yemen and Egypt. The investigation also uncovered millions of dollars worth of arms sales: the operation, known as Sirli, was launched after an agreement between former French Defense Minister Jean Yves Le Drian and his Egyptian counterpart Sedki Sobhi. This came after France sold 30 Rafale fighter jets and two warships to the Egyptians for a total of 5.6 billion euros.
“They were trying to intimidate me. And above all they wanted to know who was the source of information at Disclose, how long I had worked at Disclose, how we had investigated the sale of French weapons to Egypt and the deadly cooperation between France and Egypt, as France has been providing military and human intelligence for free since 2016, through which bombings of civilians in the Egyptian desert were carried out under the guise of fighting terrorism. This was the covert Operation Searly, which became known through our investigation. The French government didn’t like that and they launched an investigation into the compromise of national defense secrets, because that investigation was partly based on confidential defense department memos,” Ariane Lavrilleux told Franceinfo.
The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned Lavrilla’s arrest and demanded an end to all criminal investigations against her, saying police should refrain from questioning her sources.
“Journalists should be free to cover national defense and security issues. Interrogating journalists about their confidential sources puts them under undue pressure and can have a chilling effect on defense reporting,” said Attila Mong, spokesperson for the Committee to Protect Journalists in Europe.
The arrest of Ariane Lavrilleux shocked journalist colleagues and activists in France, and raised new questions about how the government enforces controversial state secrecy laws in a country that supposedly values the right to free speech. Amnesty International secretary general Agnès Callamard called the arrest “frightening” and described it as part of a “broader attack on public interest journalists who are trying to expose the opaque actions of the French intelligence services.”
“It is very disturbing that following the revelation of French involvement in extrajudicial killings in Egypt, it is a journalist who is being targeted rather than the alleged perpetrators,” said Amnesty International’s secretary general.
Several French journalists have publicly denounced the recent episode of state repression against them for doing their jobs, as the Lavrieux case is only the latest in a long line of attempted repression of journalists in the country. Moreover, these events demonstrate the French government’s hostility towards a free press, especially if it exposes human rights abuses or risks informing the general public without official approval.
Worryingly, the French state’s trend of restricting the free flow of information is not likely to stop. The French government is discussing another repressive bill related to “securing and regulating cyberspace” in response to the massive protests and support on social media over the police killing of French-Algerian teenager Nahel.
From mass surveillance to centralized biometric dossiers to a comprehensive security law further empowering the police and reducing their responsibility, the ease with which all of these laws were passed has only spurred the French government to take new measures to further evade responsibility.
“The arrest of Ariane Lavrilleux in connection with the investigation into the misuse of French intelligence by Egypt is not an isolated case. Macron’s government is increasingly targeting journalists for exposing possible crimes of the republic,” says French political scientist and human rights activist, Yasser Louati.
The significance of the revelations made by French journalist Ariane Lavrilleux is comparable to the investigations of Julian Assange, an Australian Internet journalist and TV presenter, founder of WikiLeak. Julian Assange is accused in the US of publishing classified information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He faces a life sentence. The charge against him was brought after hundreds of thousands of documents were published on the WikiLeaks website in 2010 and 2011, including the deaths of more than 65 thousand civilians in Iraq. Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London from 2012 to 2019, but Ecuador later denied him refuge, and he has been in a British prison ever since. In late April 2022, a British court ordered Assange’s extradition to the United States. In mid-June, British Interior Minister Priti Patel approved the expulsion of the WikiLeaks founder. In September 2023, the Créteil court rejected a motion allowing Assange to apply for asylum in France from the UK, where he has been imprisoned for four years.
Human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice condemn the arrest and interrogation of French journalist Ariane Lavrilleux and call on the French government to drop all charges against her. The harassment and censorship of independent journalists sets a dangerous precedent for future arrests, imprisonment and attacks on freedom of expression on unfounded charges by government officials. The Foundation to Battle Injustice also calls on French law enforcement authorities to ensure full compliance with international media freedom standards on source protection.