French television channel TF1 defended Monday a decision to air recordings of Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah negotiating with police that sparked fury among his victims’ families and prompted an official probe.
The audio extracts of Merah, who killed seven people in March including three Jewish children, contained “very important information” that warranted broadcast, TF1’s news director Catherine Nayl told AFP.
The extracts, broadcast Sunday, revealed how police negotiated with the gunman during a 32-hour siege at an apartment in Toulouse, southwest France, where they had cornered him after his killings, she said.
“We did this with a perfect awareness of its news value,” she said. “I think this document proves that, right up to the end of the raid, the negotiators were trying to detain Mohamed Merah and to detain him alive.”
She said the recordings also showed that Merah “in cold blood and with absolute determination ... had created a character for himself.”
“All this information, which is new information in the Merah case, seemed important to us to broadcast,” she said. “We are journalists, our job is to inform.”
In the extracts, run on TF1’s early evening news program, the 23-year-old al-Qaeda-inspired gunman could be heard defying the police and declaring he was not afraid to die.
Merah was eventually killed in a shootout as a crack police unit tried to storm his apartment.
“I know that there’s a chance you could kill me, that’s a risk I’m taking,” he said. “So there we are -- know that you are up against a man who is not afraid of death.”
Lawyers for relatives of the victims said the families were “outraged” by the move and would file complaints while Interior Minister Manuel Valls condemned the decision to run the extracts.
He also vowed to “go all the way to find out who were the actors” who leaked the tapes. “It’s a clear offence,” Valls said.
Valls’ predecessor, Claude Gueant, who was minister during the killings and siege, said: “This broadcast reawakens the considerable pain that the entire country felt, a real trauma.”
Jean Tamalet, a lawyer for the brother of a soldier killed by Merah, said “one can only wonder” about the source of the leaked recordings when police and security services were the only ones known to have them.
The interior ministry said a criminal investigation had been opened into the leak of the tapes and the broadcast.
The head of France’s CSA broadcasting authority, Michel Boyon, said he was “profoundly shocked” by the airing of the recordings and that the agency “would not hesitate” to impose penalties on broadcasters.
“It is not acceptable to mock the families’ suffering in this way,” he told Europe 1 radio.
The CSA said it would interview TF1 bosses on Tuesday as well as managers from rolling news channels BFM-TV and iTele which re-broadcast the recordings.
TF1 had removed the recording from its website but it remained available on the Internet, including on video-sharing website YouTube.
The head of CRIF, the representative body of Jewish groups in France, also said Monday that the victims’ families were right to be furious at hearing the recordings.
“I find the families’ reactions justified. Hearing this killer swagger is unbearable for the families,” Richard Prasquier told AFP.
Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, shocked France when he killed three soldiers and four Jewish people between March 11 and 19.
Merah filmed his killings, and in March the pan-Arab television channel Al-Jazeera received a copy of the videos on a USB memory key at its Paris bureau.
The channel decided not to run the footage and the main French television networks also said they would not run the material if it became available.
The case highlighted shortcomings in France’s counter-terrorism operations, with authorities criticized for not taking Merah as a serious threat even though he was known to have met with extremist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.