Paris (AFP) – French lawmakers accused the government of attempting to legalise censorship during a stormy debate Friday over a bill designed to fight so-called fake news during election campaigns.
President Emmanuel Macron launched a crusade against misinformation after being targeted during his 2017 campaign by online rumours that he was gay and had a secret bank account in the Bahamas — claims he rubbished as lies spread by Russian media and the French far right.
The draft law allows a political candidate or party to seek an injunction preventing the publication of “false information” during the three months preceding a national election.
Defending the bill on French radio, MP Stanislas Guerini of Macron’s centrist party said: “What I don’t want is that some day we have a Trump elected by a Putin in our country.”
– ‘Thought police’ –
The government aims to have it in place in time for next year’s European parliamentary vote.
But it has run into stiff opposition from the media and in parliament, where parties on the left and right both called it an attack on freedom of expression and an attempt to create a “thought police” during a debate into the early hours of Friday.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” said Constance Le Grip, an MP from the centre-right Republicans party, warning the risk of “claims labelled ‘fake news’ by a judge being proven to be true a few days later”.
“Journalism and official truths have never been good bedfellows,” Le Figaro newspaper noted in an editorial, arguing that the best way to help citizens detect fake information was to “promote education, culture, objectivity, reflection and critical thinking.”
European governments are struggling to work out how to respond to the dissemination of false information and foreign meddling in elections, following accusations of Kremlin interference in the US presidential vote and attempts by Russian state media to turn voters against Macron.
The British government has set up a “fake news” unit, while Italy has an online service to report false articles and the European Union is working on a “code of practice” that would provide guidelines for social media companies.
“A sure way of destroying freedom, faced with the current dangers, is to do nothing,” said Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen, who ran a publishing house before joining the government.
Besides combatting “false information”, the bill also forces Facebook and other social media networks to reveal the names of companies behind sponsored content and gives the authorities permission to take foreign broadcasters off the air if they attempt to destabilise France — a measure seen as aimed at Russian state-backed channel RT.