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AFP’s Statutes: A Major Victory, On to the Next Battle!

Wednesday 29 February 2012

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

The French Parliament has just adopted an amendment to Article 13 of AFP’s statutes, which defines the relationship between the agency and the state.

This marks the second time in less than a year that the 1957 law laying down our company’s statutes has been changed: the first having resulted from SUD-AFP’s successful constitutional challenge to allow staff of all nationalities to take part in the triennial elections to AFP’s board.

Our court case brought an end to discrimination on the grounds of nationality. The latest reform, sponsored by the French government, is aimed at making AFP’s statutes compatible with the economic treaties that the European Union has imposed on us, despite the fact that French voters decisively rejected their basic premises in the 2005 constitutional referendum.

According to those treaties, the funds provided to AFP by the French government are considered, at least in part, to be subsidies. As such, the rules stipulate that they be justified as “Services of general economic interest”, or “general interest missions” in French terminology.

Those were the grounds cited by the German news agency DAPD in lodging a complaint against AFP with the European Commission.

We can afford to smile at the hypocrisy involved in banning such subsidies at a time when the selfsame European Union is busy destroying the lives of entire populations in order to save private banks and investment funds with the help of billions taken away from workers and pensioners.

Despite that major reservation, SUD, along with the other AFP trade unions, has stated that “writing the general interest missions into the statutes is a good solution if we are to defuse the conflict with Brussels and defend AFP’s statutes… which have been repeatedly attacked in recent years.

In its new form, the first paragraph of Article 13 will now read: 

Agence France Presse’s resources comprise the income it gains from the sale of documents and news services to its customers, financial compensation from the state for the net costs incurred by the carrying-out of its general interest missions as those missions are laid down in Articles 1 and 2, and revenue from its assets.

It should be recalled that Articles 1 and 2 of AFP’s statutes define the company as an “autonomous civil entity” which may “under no circumstances take account of influences or considerations liable to compromise the exactitude or the objectivity of the information it provides” and which “may under no circumstances fall under the control, either de facto or de jure, of any ideological, political or economic grouping”.

  • (For a full translation into English of AFP’s statutes, produced by SUD-AFP, see the SOS-AFP web site.).

Grand Schemes Brought Low

We note with satisfaction that this small change to a single sentence in the 1957 statutes is all that has come of four years of strenuous efforts made by Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, helped along by AFP management, to make radical changes to the basic rules governing the world’s number-three international news agency.
The main stages in what has been an epic battle can be read on the joint unions’ “SOS-AFP” web site (http://www.sos-afp.org/en):

  • 2008: Virulent attacks against AFP’s editorial policies by leaders of the ruling UMP party;
  • 2009: At the request of the government, CEO Pierre Louette publishes a plan aimed at turning AFP into a “national publicly-funded company”;
  • 2010: Louette abruptly resigns after staff mobilisation successfully blocks his plan;
  • 2011: Publication of the Legendre law, which fails also, thanks to further trade union resistance and the approaching French elections.

Through thick and thin, with general assemblies, street protests and even a few work stoppages, AFP’s staff have amply demonstrated their commitment to the agency’s political and economic independence.

As has the general public: the impressive list of leading figures who were among the over 21,000 people to sign the “SOS-AFP” petition bears witness to the popularity of our cause.

Media Independence: A Never-Ending Struggle

The victory is therefore noteworthy: all the various demolition jobs promoted over the past four years have been headed off, and in the final analysis the only change made to our statutes has confirmed what we have been saying for years: that AFP’s activity indeed amounts to a “public interest mission” which should at all costs be protected against “influences or considerations liable to compromise the exactitude or the objectivity of the information it provides”.

If this slight change in wording enables AFP to avoid being sanctioned by the zealous defenders of “free and undistorted competition” in both Brussels and Paris, it also makes things much more difficult for all those who were hoping to use the German complaint an a wedge to push through wide-ranging changes that would effectively demolish AFP’s 1957 statutes.

It also at last opens the way for us to begin dealing with some of the underlying problems faced by AFP. Such as:

  • What is the right development strategy if we are to ensure the survival of media free of “the control, either de facto or de jure, of any ideological, political or economic grouping”?
  • What fundamental shared rights should we be demanding for all AFP staff worldwide, in a company, which has become a global and multicultural force?

Whatever the outcome of the impending French elections, these issues will be at the heart of debate over the new “Aims and Means Contract” (COM) between AFP and the state. Talks on that key document should be opening soon.

We must in particular focus debate on editorial policies, and the continuing slide towards ever more “infotainment” and ever-less hard news. By so doing we will help concentrate AFP’s activities on its “public interest mission” as against purely advertising- and PR-based adventures which we see as being contrary to the basic principles of our statutes.

A new chapter begins: We must be the ones to write it!

SUD-AFP - Paris, Wednesday February 29, 2012