Investigative journalists from Disclose and Radio France published a series of reports in April disclosing the number of French arms sold to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the main countries behind the war on Yemen which has left some 56,000 dead, and triggered a famine killing 85,000 children.
The disclosed documents, written by France's Directorate of Military Intelligence, (DSGI) exposed lies of senior officials about the role of French weapons in Yemen.
One document was presented in October to 2018 to French President Emmanuel Macron, who has always insisted that French arms are only used in "defensive circumstances."
Disclose media said that by crossing data with those of the U.S. NGO Acled, they could establish that 35 civilians died during 52 bombings between March 2016 and December 2018 in the field where French Caesar cannon fire operated.
Disclose's co-founders Geoffrey Livolsi and Mathias Destal and Radio France journalist Benoit Collombat were summoned to a hearing at the DSGI headquarters in Paris after publishing the reports where they refused to disclose their sources.
The journalists also defended press freedom and said it was in public interest to publish the leaked documents.
The Press Law of 1881 protected press freedom in the country for more than 130 years which allows journalists to keep their sources confidential.
However, the journalists can be tried and sentenced under a 2009 law which considers the handling of a classified document without clearance, an offense.
They could each face five years in prison and a US$83,000 fine if convicted.
Paul Coppin, the head of Reporters Without Border's (RSF) legal unit criticized the move by the French government. "We are concerned that the sole aim of this hearing is to use the threat of prosecution to put pressure on these journalists to reveal their source," he said in a statement.
"The mere fact of threatening such a prosecution for publishing information in the public interest would in itself constitute a serious violation of the public's right to be informed."
The Yemeni war started on March 26, 2015, when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates led a coalition of countries in a military campaign against Ansar Allah (Houthi) rebels in Yemen in support of the Saudi-backed government of Abd-Rabu Mansour Hadi.
UNICEF Chief Henrietta Fore said in a recent tweet, “The reality in Yemen is very serious and makes it impossible for the population to access the most basic services to feed themselves, avoid diseases or protect the most vulnerable.” She added that “80 percent of the population is in need of humanitarian aid,” including more than 11 million children.
Foreign governments like the U.S., U.K. and France have been criticized for supplying weapons to the Saudi-led coalition which is accused of committing war crimes against civilians.