Raid on French car magazine refuels press debate

PARIS (Reuters) - A raid by French prosecutors on the offices of a specialist magazine that published unauthorized pictures of one of carmaker Renault’s new models has refueled simmering controversy over press freedom in France.

“You have to think what kind of press we want,” Laurent Chiapello, editor of Auto Plus told Reuters on Wednesday, a day after prosecutors raided the magazine’s offices, seized computers and documents and arrested a journalist.

The incident is the latest flare-up in a perennial conflict between a scoop-hungry automobile press ready to pay for unauthorized advance pictures and carmakers eager to control images of their new models.

But it also comes at a time when press independence is the subject of increasing debate after recent broadcast reforms that give President Nicolas Sarkozy the power to name directly the head of France’s public television network.

Authorities have been conducting an investigation against Auto Plus since last August after Renault complained that the magazine had published pictures and details of a new model not due to be launched for another three years.

On Tuesday, officials raided the magazine’s offices, sparking fierce complaints that the confidentiality of reporters’ sources had been undermined.

“By gaining access to the computers of our journalists, they gain access to all our sources and that poses a real problem to our way of working independently and not tied to the carmakers,” Chiapello said.

Two of the country’s biggest journalists’ unions, SNJ and the press section of Force Ouvriere have also complained.

“It’s intolerable that journalists should be treated like criminals when they are just doing their job of informing the public,” SNJ said in a statement.

Renault said the complaint was intended to protect its intellectual property.

“It kills creativity, you may as well just give our models to the newspapers and our competitors. What’s the point of doing any research?” a spokesman said.

“The idea is not to attack Auto Plus but to cut off the sources that feed it, to find the source inhouse.”

Raids on newspaper and magazine offices are rare in France which has laws protecting press freedom.

A draft law, due to be examined in the Senate after the summer recess, is intended to tighten safeguards on the confidentiality of press sources, although exceptions remain in cases of exceptional public interest.

Journalists organizations have complained the new law is still too vague.