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Photojournalist faces criminal charge over image of Paris attack victim

Case raises debate over privacy and freedom of the press

Greg Sandoval

A photojournalist is facing criminal charges in France over her photo of a man who was killed during the November terrorist attacks in Paris. The man's family has filed charges against the Paris-based photographer, Maya Vidon-White, saying the publication of the image caused them emotional damage, but Vidon-White's lawyers and press freedom advocates argue that she's been wrongfully targeted under an "obscure" French law. Both sides appeared in a Paris court last month, as BuzzFeed reported, and a judge will decide whether the case can go forward on Friday.

Vidon-White took the photo outside of the Bataclan concert hall, where gunmen killed 90 people on November 13th last year. The image of a man laying on the ground receiving medical treatment was sold to United Press International (UPI), a US news agency, and was later sold to a French agency. It was eventually published on November 17th by the French weekly magazine VSD, which mistakenly described the man, named Cedric Gomet, as a survivor of the attack. (Gomet had died by the time the photo was published, and Vidon-White's original caption did not identify him as a survivor.)

Family lawyer says victim's face should have been blurred.

About two months after she took the photo, Vidon-White was told that she was being prosecuted under the so-called Guigou law, which prohibits the publication of photos showing the victims of terrorist attacks in a way that violates their "human dignity." The lawyer for Gomet's family, Jean Sannier, says the photographer and VSD violated the law by publishing the Bataclan photo on a double-page spread, and by not blurring out Cedric's face. The family has filed charges against both Vidon-White and VSD, and are seeking damages totaling €34 000, in addition to legal fees; the photographer could face a fine of up to €15,000.

"The fact that VSD thought it was right to publish this photo on November 17th, saying that Cedric was still alive, was extremely painful for the family and those close to him," Sannier said in a phone interview. "Even if the family knew he was at the Bataclan the night of the 13th, his friends were not necessarily aware, and they were all happy to learn [from the photo] that he was alive."

The lawyer representing Vidon-White, Vincent Tolédano, says the case should be thrown out because the law only applies to victims who are still alive, and therefore does not cover the families of the deceased. The Guigou law was passed in 2000, after survivors of a 1995 metro bombing filed a lawsuit against a magazine that had published images of them. In an email, Tolédano pointed to a document circulated by the Judicial Ministry, which says that images violating the law must contain a "degrading" element, and that an image of a victim, in itself, isn't "sufficient."

"The image produced by Maya Vidon-White... does not contain the ‘degrading' dimension required by law," Tolédano said in an email. "We must therefore not confuse, in the horror of an event, the pain of the victims, who command the utmost respect, and the work of journalists."

"We are not used to seeing dead people on public streets in France."

Press groups have backed Vidon-White, who has previously worked as a photo editor and staff photographer for the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse. "We believe that Vidon-White has broken no laws," the journalist group Associated Reporters Abroad (ARA), to which Vidon-White belongs, said in a statement last month. "She took a photo of a victim of the attack; she did not publish the photo in France; she did not sell the photo to a French outlet — she sold it as part of a series to UPI at which point had no control over its resale or its publication."

Privacy laws are generally stricter in Europe than the US —€” the EU has enshrined privacy as a "fundamental right" —€” and French laws are among the strictest. Blandine Poidevin, a Lille-based lawyer who specializes in technology and communication law, says that the Guigou law is most often used to protect the dignity of people who are accused of a crime. That's why it's illegal for French media outlets to show the faces of suspects in handcuffs before they're convicted. Cases involving attack victims are rarer, though that may change with the growing threat of terrorism.

"These are rather new cases," Poidevin says. "We are not used to seeing dead people on public streets in France, so the law concerning that is not exactly clear."

If the judge rules in Vidon-White's favor tomorrow and the case does not go forward, Sannier says the family will push for legislators to clarify that the Guigou law covers the deceased and their families. A decision against his client, Sannier says, "would mean that when you're alive, you have the right to have your image respected, and when you're dead, you no longer have the same rights, which would be truly scandalous."

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly described the way VSD captioned the photo of Cedric Gomet. It only identified him as a survivor, not by his name.