A new law in France makes it a crime, punishable by up to five years in prison, for anyone who is not a professional journalist to film real-world violence and distribute the images on the Internet.
Critics call it a clumsy, near-totalitarian effort by authorities to battle "happy slapping" — the youth fad of filming violent acts — which most often they have provoked themselves, and spreading the images on the Web or between mobile phones.
The measure, tucked deep into a vast anti-crime law that took effect Wednesday, took media advocates by surprise with what they say is an undesirable side effect: trampling on freedom of expression.
Experts said the law is the first of its kind in Europe. France made headlines years ago by ordering U.S.-based online company Yahoo Inc. to pay a fine of about $15 million for displaying Nazi memorabilia for sale, in violation of French law.
The new provision takes on "happy slapping," a phenomenon whose name belies the gravity of the attacks. It mostly involves youths, and the victims often are strangers.
Violators of the law, passed in parliament in February, will be subject to up to five years in prison and $98,600 in fines. It was championed by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is a top contender in France's presidential election in April and May.
The law was published in the government's Official Journal on Wednesday, bringing it into effect, after the Constitutional Council gave its final approval over the weekend.
Ligue Odebi, an association that seeks to protect freedom of expression on the Internet, said the measure will also hinder citizens' abilities to expose police brutality.
"This makes France the Western country that most infringes on freedom of expression and information, particularly on the Internet," the group said in a statement on its Web site, www.odebi.org
"Identifying uploaders (of such images) would require the creation of a totalitarian surveillance of the Net," the group said.
Ligue Odebi noted that the council's approval Saturday fell on the 16th anniversary of the March 3, 1991, beating of motorist Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in a scene captured on amateur video, a case that sparked a national outcry in the United States.
The French law says that anyone who "knowingly" films illegal acts of violence and distributes the images can be considered an accomplice — but that professional journalists are exempt.
French authorities have been seeking new ways to combat youth violence after a wave of rioting, car burnings and violence mostly in poor neighborhoods on the fringe of Paris and other cities in 2005.
Media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said it understood the government's need to crack down on "happy slapping," but feared the law draws a "dangerous" distinction that would punish "regular citizens" for doing what journalists are allowed to do.
"The sections of this law supposedly dealing with 'happy slapping' in fact have a much broader scope," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. "Posting videos online showing violence against people could now be banned, even if it were the police carrying out the violence."
The measure has implications for online video sites like YouTube, or France's Dailymotion.com: Authorities could ask them to identify the sources of images made available through their sites.