Press fights Fayed over Diana crash pictures

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The Independent Online

Four years after the accident that killed Diana, Princess of Wales, a new row has erupted in France. This time, freedom of the press is under threat because of the behaviour of the paparazzi before and after the crash.

Several of the photographers who pursued her on the night of her death on 31 August 1997 will tomorrow be placed under criminal investigation for "infringement of privacy". One of their colleagues already faces a similar charge.

Two years ago, legal proceedings for manslaughter against the photographers were dropped. At the insistence of Mohamed Al Fayed, the father of Dodi Fayed, who also died in the crash, new proceedings are now under way. This time the photographers are not accused of having caused the car crash which led to Diana's death. They are accused of having broken French laws on personal privacy by taking pictures of the dead, dying and injured in the wrecked Mercedes. Some will also be accused tomorrow of breaching the privacy of Diana and Mr Fayed by taking pictures of them in their car before the crash.

Leading French magazines and press agencies ­ already disturbed by other, recent curbs on the publication of pictures in France ­ are ready to turn the accusations into a test of press freedom. At stake is freedom of information, guaranteed by the French constitution and the European Convention on human rights as opposed to the French law which promises "respect for private life".

"The case would undermine the entire profession of journalism in word and image," said Goksin Sipahioglu, founder and director of the Sipa photographic agency in Paris. "To censor the taking of photographs of an accident, fatal or otherwise, of an attack, a war, a catastrophe, is a grave error."

Nine photographers and a press dispatch rider present at the scene of the crash were originally accused of manslaughter and failing to help the victims of an accident. These proceedings were dropped in September 1999. Mohamed Al Fayed then demanded that the French judicial system should investigate whether the photographers had invaded the private life of Diana and his son. The judicial authorities originally ignored his request but a court decided in October last year that Mr Al Fayed was right.

An examining magistrate, Muriel Josié, was asked to investigate whether charges of infringing privacy should be brought against the photographers. One of them, Jacques Langevin, was placed under investigation. Several others are expected to appear before Judge Josié tomorrow.

Mr Langevin's case has particularly upset the French press. Paris-Match carried a two-page plea for press freedom in which leading press personalities criticised the legal action. Mr Langevin ­ a respected news photographer and not a paparazzo ­ arrived on the scene of the crash 15 minutes after the event. He had not been one of the group of photographers chasing the couple. "There were police, ambulances, doctors. It was hardly a private place," he said.

The French pop singer Michel Sardou, however, brought about an action which established in French law that the inside of a car should be seen as just as private as the inside of a house. Judge Josié must now decide whether the photographers infringed this principle, before and after the crash.

There is plenty of evidence that they did. Rolls of film seized by the police show Mr Fayed and Diana in the car after it left the Ritz hotel. They also show the dead and dying couple inside the wrecked car. But these pictures have never been published and no photographer has been successfully prosecuted in France for taking an unpublished picture. Judge Josié must decide whether the act of taking the pictures was itself an infringement of French privacy law.