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Photo of Paris massacre victim sparks press freedom case

On Friday evening Nov. 13, Maya Vidon-White, like many Parisians, was dining with friends. But the moment she learned that Kalashnikov-wielding terrorists were attacking the Bataclan concert hall, she grabbed her camera, hopped on her scooter and sped to the scene.

Vidon-White, 48, a French war photographer who has spent more than a decade covering conflicts in Israel, Indonesia and Africa, instinctively began to look for victims. As the wounded began to pile up at a makeshift emergency center at a square near the concert hall, she recalled, she spotted a figure lying on the pavement.

The man, Cedric Gomet, 30, an employee of the French television channel TV5Monde, was an avid guitarist with a fondness for tattoos and had been attending the concert when he was shot in the head. He was lying on his side in his underwear, his face caked with blood, in an agonizing pose. She aimed her camera. When a nearby fire engine opened its doors, and he was momentarily bathed in light, she clicked.

Now, Vidon-White has unwittingly found herself at the center of a court case in France that has pitted press freedom and the journalistic imperative to document an important news event against the moral and legal prerogative to protect the dignity and privacy of terrorism victims.

Her photograph of Gomet, who died in the 24 hours after the attacks, was published in VSD, a glossy weekly magazine known for its lurid celebrity stories. One month after she took it, Vidon-White, who was working as a freelancer for the Washington-based United Press International news agency, was informed by the Paris prosecutor’s office that she had broken the law.

The case stands as a vivid example of how, in this age of Islamic State terrorism, journalists across the world are grappling with ethical questions of how to cover attacks. They are balancing the requirements of covering breaking news and conveying reality, however disturbing, with the desire to avoid sensationalism and respect the boundaries of victims, survivors and their families.

It also shows the complex legal pitfalls and contradictionsin an age of global communication. Images zoom across the borders of states and societies with widely varying laws and sensibilities regarding privacy, potentially opening journalists to prosecution in ways they can hardly anticipate.

U.S. law does not have nearly as broad a conception of dignity as a protected legal interest as Europe does. It does allow lawsuits for invasion of privacy. But that is generally defined as public disclosure of private facts offensive to a reasonable person that are not newsworthy.

In Germany, which has a strong right-to-privacy culture, distributing or broadcasting the photographs of victims, with their faces visible, is illegal without their permission or, if the victims are dead, without the permission of their families.

But exceptions can be made if a photograph is deemed to be in the public interest. Comparatively looser media codes in Britain and Spain also call for journalists to get consent from those they are photographing, with the caveat that the public interest can trump the right to privacy.

The laws regarding privacy are particularly strict in France.

Prosecutors have accused Vidon-White and VSD of breaching the Guigou law, named for former Justice Minister Élisabeth Guigou. It forbids the publication of photographs of survivors of violent crimes, including terrorist attacks, without their permission, on the ground that to do so “seriously infringes” their right to human dignity.

Vidon-White is also named in a lawsuit against VSD. Gomet’s family and partner are demanding 43,592 euros, or more than $49,000, in damages, including legal fees.

Lawyers for Vidon-White, who is the sister-in-law of a staff editor for The International New York Times in Paris, and VSD counter that the case should be dismissed. Under the Guigou law, only the survivor of a crime can file a criminal complaint, they say, and Gomet was dead when the article was published.

In April, Vincent Toledano, Vidon-White’s lawyer, asked the Paris criminal court to throw out the case, and the court will issue its decision May 20.

“The prosecutor is trying to turn the court into a cathartic forum for victims to grieve,” Toledano said. “But that is the realm of psychology or the hospital, not a court of law.”

What’s more, Vidon-White and her lawyer noted, she had not published the photo herself, or had any contractual link to VSD, or received any payment from VSD.

They argue that Vidon-White did not know that the agency had sold her photograph to the French photo agency Maxppp, which then sold it to VSD, which published it Nov. 17 in a full-page spread with the headline “A Rock Concert Rocked by a Veritable Blood Bath.”

The magazine did not name Gomet but juxtaposed his photograph with the harrowing account of a Bataclan massacre survivor, also named Cedric, who described the sound of screams as he escaped from the hall. (Vidon-White did not know Gomet’s name when she filed the photograph, so her photograph did not identify him.)

Associated Reporters Abroad, a Berlin-based freelance group that Vidon-White was working for at the time of the attacks, said French prosecutors were overzealously trying to “show to the grieving public — and the family of the victim — that they were taking action after the terror attacks, and twisting French law to do so.”

Jabeen Bhatti, the managing editor of Associated Reporters Abroad, said the prosecution against Vidon-White was a slippery slope that threatened press freedom. “What’s next: prosecuting reporters for interviewing victims?” she asked.

But Jean Sannier, a lawyer for Gomet’s family, countered that their despair was magnified by the publication of a photograph that he said was “voyeuristic” and jarringly graphic, cruelly showing Gomet’s suffering. He accused Vidon-White of eroticizing a dying terrorism victim, barely clothed and lying on the street.

“The photograph is vulgar and indecent, and it would have been more powerful if you couldn’t see the face,” he said. “Cedric’s parents were forced to see their son in agony, the impact of the bullet, his face covered in blood, almost alone. It is simply terrible.”

Vidon-White said she had just been doing her job.

“My job is to show reality, and it doesn’t always please people,” she said. “I wanted to convey the impact of the attacks and how France has been hurt.” She added, “I live here, too.”

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