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Caroline Warman

45. Nicolas-Edme Rétif, known as Rétif de la Bretonne, Ninth Juvenal. The False Immorality of the Freedom of the Press, 17961

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  • 1 Rétif de la Bretonne, IXe Juvénale. Fausse immoralité de la liberté de la presse, in his Monsieur N (...)

1Rétif de la Bretonne composed, under the generic name Juvenals, several texts which criticised contemporary morality and institutions. He devoted one of these to the freedom of the press, which he considered from several angles. In this extract he defends what we now call investigative journalism, but which sometime took the form of violent denunciation during the French Revolution. He aims to open up public debate as much as possible.

2Be absolutely certain, lawmakers of France, that in curbing the freedom of the press, honest citizens will gain nothing, whilst criminals will benefit. They are the ones being attacked in the press, and they are the ones who will furiously call on the full rigour of the law to defend themselves. To avoid wrongly attacking one innocent person out of a hundred or a thousand, you are protecting a thousand guilty ones, when to unmask them would be in the public interest. Instead of being restricted, press freedom should be extended, and all citizens be encouraged to make use of it. The accused party will be free to vindicate himself by the same means and to publish as many proofs of his innocence as he needs to.

3It is clear therefore, having looked at both advantages and disadvantages, that it is the entire, absolute and unrestricted freedom of the press that must be upheld: firstly, because it is very useful, necessary even, to frighten villains by unmasking them; secondly, because it is easy to repel a libellous attack in print on the reputation of an honest man: if it appears in a newspaper, the journalist would be obliged to print any justification as soon as he received it; if it is on a poster or fly-bill, the defamed party will respond in the same way, at the expense of his accuser, for the printer will always be obliged to print a second one straight away. […] Fifthly, one should consider above all that with unrestricted freedom of the press, no ruler, administrator, or civil servant would ever be able to abuse the powers of his office, because anyone would be able to expose his misdoings. Should they have been falsely calumnied, he will successfully clear their name, and his accuser be publicly humiliated. If on the contrary the abuses of a public figure were revealed, this would be of great advantage to the state, which would be delivered from the rule of a bad administrator and preserved from the impudence of his intimidating associates! I repeat: absolute freedom of the press is the safeguard of public wellbeing, even if it were to be misused; no dishonest man would dare offer his services for public office, nor have the impudence to stay in one. […]

4What danger could there be in allowing a journalist the freedom to write whatever he wants today, so long as he humbly retracts, the very next day, any falsehoods he happened to have spread the day before, on pain of a fortnight in jail on bread and water, and with increasing penalties should he reoffend, up to and including death?


1 Rétif de la Bretonne, IXe Juvénale. Fausse immoralité de la liberté de la presse, in his Monsieur Nicolas, VIII, part 16, 1796.

Table des illustrations

Titre Portrait of Nicolas-Edme Rétif by unknown artist (1785)
Fichier image/jpeg, 130k


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