The arrest of investigative reporter Arianne Lavrilleux has sparked outrage in France, where attacks on freedom of reporting have increased under Macron’s presidency.

The latest example of the liberal drift of Emmanuel Macron’s France. After the disturbing arrest in April of a left-wing French editor in London, or the attempt to outlaw the environmentalist collective Les Soulèvements de la Terre, this week the arrest of investigative journalist Arianne Lavrilleux has sparked outrage in the neighbouring country. The reason? Simply because she had done her work and uncovered information of public interest about French military and arms collaboration with authoritarian regimes such as Egypt, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Magistrates and secret service agents – normally in charge of anti-terrorist operations – arrested the independent journalist at her home in Marseille on Tuesday morning. She was held for 39 hours at a police station, where she was interrogated. Despite her release on Wednesday evening, her case has been perceived in many French newsrooms as the last straw in a “general decline in press freedom” in the neighbouring country.

Arianne Lavrilleux was arrested on Tuesday by secret service agents and held in a police station for 39 hours, where she was interrogated.

“If we do not protect sources, this represents the end of journalism,” Lavrilleux told a press conference at the Paris headquarters of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Thursday. In addition to her, the French secret services are also investigating a former military officer, who could face charges. The arrest of the reporter is the result of a series of five articles she published in the investigative journal Disclose. The independent online newspaper regularly exposes military and arms issues. Three of its journalists had already been interrogated by the secret services in 2019 for having revealed information about arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which were later used in the devastating war in Yemen.

Three journalists had already been interrogated by the secret services in 2019 for having revealed information about arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, then used in the devastating war in Yemen.

Using anti-terrorist means to investigate a journalist

In Disclose, Lavrilleux made a series of revelations about the involvement of French secret agents in the Sirli military operation in Egypt, the sale of 30 Rafale aircraft to the Egyptian regime of Abdelfattah al-Sisi, French war materiel to Russia that was used in the war in Ukraine, and arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

In particular, the secret services are investigating her because of the information she provided on the collaborators between the French intelligence services and the Egyptian army. Although it was officially an anti-terrorist operation, in reality it was used by the Sisi regime to kill civilians working as smugglers. To prove this exclusivity, she published some fragments of military documents classified as defence secrets. And last year the prosecutor’s office opened an investigation for breach of defence secrecy.

“We cannot do anything in the name of national defence. Especially since we are not in Egypt,” Lavrilleux defended herself. Although her investigations earned her a nomination for the Albert London Prize – the most prestigious journalistic award in the neighbouring country – she now regrets being treated like a “criminal”. “Nine intelligence agents and magistrates who normally deal with anti-terrorist investigations came to my house,” said the reporter, who also collaborates with the online newspaper Mediapart, the magazine Le Point and the radio stations RTL and RFI. They searched her home and extracted all the data from her computer and mobile phones using cyber-surveillance software.

“Normally, they are dedicated to preventing attacks. These brilliant brains have been mobilised for months to pursue a journalist and her sources (…) This is an extreme violation of the freedom to inform and the protection of journalistic sources,” Lavrilleux complained.

RSF denounced an “exceptional procedure”. “These interventions are a serious violation of the principle of the confidentiality of sources,” it criticised in a statement. On Wednesday, journalists’ organisations and left-wing formations called rallies in support of the detained journalist. The Socialist Party denounced the arrest as taking place in “a context of a general decline in press freedom in France”.

“Multiplying attacks” on press freedom

The arrest of a journalist for having provided information of public interest is unusual in the neighbouring country, but it would be an exaggeration to present it as an isolated incident. Apart from the well-known case of Julian Assange, who was severely repressed by the United States and the United Kingdom for the Wikileaks revelations in 2010, there are many examples of whistleblowers sentenced to heavy sentences (or threatened with them) for having disclosed important information, from Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden to the most recent case of Portugal’s Rui Pinto, tried for the Football Leaks affair.

However, Lavrilleux’s case has been perceived in several French newsrooms as the last straw in the deterioration of freedom of information in France – a country renowned for the plurality and quality of its media – during Macron’s presidency.

“Far from being an isolated episode, the arrest of Arianne Lavrilleux adds to the endless list of violations of press freedom, which has been growing since 2017,” criticised this week the journalist Ellen Salvi of Mediapart, who followed presidential news between 2017 and 2022.

Although he presented himself as a “liberal” leader and his emergence in 2017 was favoured by a benevolent treatment by most of the establishment media, Macron’s arrival at the Elysée coincided with restrictions on journalists who follow presidential and governmental news. Since then, corporate communication has taken precedence over journalistic reporting. Calls from ministers to the media or denunciations (or threats thereof) against journalists who have leaked sensitive (but also less relevant) information, for example, about the Benalla affair, have been commonplace.

It was precisely because of the whole affair involving Macron’s former bodyguard that the public prosecutor’s office inspected the editorial office of the digital media outlet Mediapart, a controversial intervention for which the state would end up being condemned. In addition, there have been numerous cases of photojournalists and image reporters beaten up during demonstrations and prevented by the police from doing their work. “In recent years, attacks” on press freedom have multiplied, “especially during Macron’s presidency”, Lavrilleux denounced. To her regret, she has become a symbol of this drift.