PARIS — French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a sweeping new law Thursday that would jail those who visit extremist websites — one of several tough new measures floated in the wake of a murderous shooting spree.
The proposed rules, which Sarkozy unveiled after the death of an Islamist fanatic wanted for a horrifying series of execution-style murders, have alarmed journalists and legal experts, who say they risk pulling the plug on free expression.
Sarkozy argued that it is time to treat those who browse extremist websites the same way as those who consume child pornography.
"Anyone who regularly consults Internet sites which promote terror or hatred or violence will be sentenced to prison," he told a campaign rally in Strasbourg, in eastern France. "What is possible for pedophiles should be possible for trainee terrorists and their supporters, too."
How the proposed rules would work isn't clear. When asked, Sarkozy's office directed the query for details to the Ministry of Justice, which didn't immediately offer clarification.
Journalists and lawyers are concerned.
"Trying to criminalize a visit — a simple visit — to a website, that's something that seems disproportionate," said Lucie Morillon, who runs the new media bureau of journalists' watchdog group Reporters Without Borders.
"What's especially worrying for us is how you are going to know who's looking at what site. Does this announcement mean the installation of a global Internet surveillance system in France?"
Media lawyer Christophe Bigot seconded her concerns, saying that any such law — if passed — would be a serious blow to the democratic credentials of a country that considers itself the home of human rights.
"I don't see how you can assume that a person who connects [to an extremist website] not only shares the ideas that are being expressed there but is ready to act on them," Bigot said. "That seems to be a very dangerous shortcut — a real step back in terms of individual liberty."
Bigot said it wasn't clear to him to what degree Sarkozy's proposals were serious. The president is only a month from a close election and has France's far-right nipping at his heels, so he's been under pressure to appear tough.
The tightening presidential race has been upended by the shooting rampage blamed on Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent who allegedly killed three French paratroopers, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi before dying in a violent confrontation with police in the southern French city of Toulouse earlier Thursday.
Merah reportedly told police that the campaign of terror was an attempt to "bring France to its knees," and a poll released Thursday by the CSA firm suggested that Sarkozy may benefit politically from a hardening of attitudes toward extremism.
Morillon said she understood the emotional appeal of a crackdown on online radicalization in the wake of such atrocities.
Still, she said, "you have to be careful not to attack the wrong target."
"Once more it's the Internet that's being blamed, as if the Internet was the source of all evil."
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