French TV reprimanded for airing Toulouse gunman tape

PARIS Tue Jul 10, 2012 3:01pm EDT

A policeman patrols in front of the five-storey apartment building where special forces police staged the assault on the gunman Mohamed Merah, in Toulouse March 23, 2012. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

A policeman patrols in front of the five-storey apartment building where special forces police staged the assault on the gunman Mohamed Merah, in Toulouse March 23, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier

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PARIS (Reuters) - A major French TV station was reprimanded on Monday over its decision to broadcast leaked recordings of the last words exchanged between Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah and negotiators, hours before he was killed in a shootout with police.

The emergence of the recordings, in which Merah is heard mocking police and saying he loves death more than life, stirred up emotions still raw three months after the 23-year-old Frenchman carried out a string of deadly shootings in the name of al Qaeda.

France's CSA audiovisual board summoned several TV and radio stations for having aired the tapes but only reprimanded privately owned TF1 because it broadcast them first and without sufficient warning about their potentially shocking nature.

"I was shocked by the decision to air (the recordings) when I thought of the victims' families, of those who were injured or otherwise affected by these events," CSA president Michel Boyon told journalists at a news conference.

The reprimand does not include a fine, but obliges the station to review its practices in handling sensitive material. In case of another breach, TF1 could face a fine.

In France's worst attack by an Islamist militant in 17 years, Merah went on a rampage through the southern city of Toulouse on a scooter in March, killing three soldiers, three Jewish children and a rabbi.

Police quickly narrowed a list of suspects and launched a dawn raid on Merah's flat, but he repulsed their assault, setting the stage for an all-night standoff that ended, more than 24 hours later, in a hail of gunfire.

At the time, controversy surrounded the raid. Blogs and social networking sites were full of speculation about whether police had simply executed Merah. His father in Algeria sued French police for having unlawfully killed his son.

Extracts of the recordings available on several websites suggest that Merah was fully in control of his actions.

In a clear and steady voice tinged with a Toulouse accent, Merah tells negotiators that he does not fear death and is ready to face down another assault by police laying siege to his flat.

"I know you might shoot me, that's a risk that I'm taking," he says. Of the killing at the Jewish Ozar Hatorah school, he says: "I got on the scooter and I just stopped there, it was not premeditated, well, yes, I meant to do it, but that morning when I woke up it was not my goal."

A film of Merah's attacks, recorded on a camera strapped to his chest, was sent to al Jazeera television but never aired.

Boyon said TF1 had been reprimanded for failing to flag sensitive material or place it in context, in addition to breaching confidentiality around an ongoing probe into suspicions that Merah may have acted with aid from partners.

But there was also a warning to other stations not to broadcast the video. "In the case of Mr Merah we don't really know what might be circulating," Boyon said. "This is to remind the heads of television stations that they have responsibilities."

(Editing by Alison Williams)

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