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TV reporter cleared of inciting teenager in body piercing "suspension"

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders welcomes the 12 May 2009 decision by a court in the southern city of Toulouse to acquit TV reporter Isabelle Cottenceau of inciting a teenager to allow himself to be suspended from body piercings in his back.

In March, prosecutors requested a suspended six-month prison sentence and fine of at least 3,000 euros for Cottenceau on a criminal charge of "complicity in an act of violence" for filming the preparations for the so-called "suspension," as the practice is called in the body-piercing subculture.

"We are relieved by Cottenceau's acquittal, which was a sensible decision," Reporters Without Borders said. "But one should not forget that she should never have been brought to trial for doing her job as a reporter. France must be more vigilant in its defence of press freedom."

Cottenceau filmed the youth for a 28-minute documentary entitled "Tattoos and piercings - they risk their skins," broadcast by the M6 TV channel in its "Forbidden Zone" programme series on 8 October 2006.

The decision to prosecute Cottenceau raises many questions. The prosecutors accused her of encouraging the youth although the actual "suspension" was not shown in the documentary, although she asked his mother why she was giving her permission and although she repeatedly insisted during the programme on the health risks involved in piercings and tattoos.

A handwritten document in which the mother gave her permission was not included in the case file despite repeated requests by the defence. The document's date proved that the youth had already decided to do the "suspension" before being contacted by Cottenceau. The mother was not questioned on this matter during the hearing.

The decision to prosecute sets a dangerous precedent for broadcast journalists who want to cover activities that could be illegal. According to the logic of the Toulouse prosecutors, any journalists covering drugs, prostitution or clandestine immigration are liable to be treated as criminals themselves.

Journalists have a duty to report what they discover to the public. In France, their activities are regulated by legislation, above all by an 1881 press law. Journalists cannot be accused of responsibility for - or complicity in - the illegal activities that they witness in the course of their reporting.

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