The French government is proposing two new laws to ban ‘Fake News’ from the web during elections and journalists and the opposition are in an uproar. Those opposed to the laws say there is already legislation to protect candidates during campaigns and against libel. Those in the ruling En March Party, under fire from all sides, tried to clarify their position by making a distinction between ‘Fake News’ and ‘Fake Information.’
True or Implausible
En Marche Party Member of Parliament, Naïma Moutchou, says the Law of 1881 on freedom of the press does not apply to the web because “you can’t determine who published it first.” This only confuses the issue which journalists and the opposition fear is a step towards censorship. En Marche has replaced the term ‘Fake News‘ by “manipuation of information” but this does not lift accusations that the laws create the possibility of an “official truth” which could prevent free expression of opinion or journalistic investigation.
A ‘False Information’ would be “any allegation or accusation of a fact devoid of verifiable elements which would make it likely.” A judge could ban the information the same day. So, the judge would not have to determine whether an information was “true or not” but whether it was “likely.” This is as subjective a decision as you can get.
Just imagine how “likely” a Judge would have thought it in 1972 when the Washington Post alleged that the Nixon White House organized the break in of the Democratic Party Headquarters.
For the Vice-President of the Paris Bar, Basile Adler, the law is just not practical and is “a law of circumstance and undoubtedly dangerous.” The law implies that the diffusion of false information be committed with actual malice. “It often takes months of investigation,” Adler told Le Monde newspaper, “for a judge to determine whether an information is true or false…the new law doesn’t even tell us who has the burden to prove the truth.”
The problem in the new legislation is not only an attempt by the executive to control the circulation of information and, why not, opinion. It takes the teeth out of two institutions whose job it is to protect the public from disinformation: the press and the courts which until now have effectively used the law of 1881 to safeguard the electoral process.
“There is already a profession, journalists,” Sciences-Po Professor Dominique Reynié told Le Figaro, “ whose job is precisely to invalidate fake news. It is not the State which decides what is correct or false.”
The ‘Thought Police’
Beyond that, the law once again takes the citizen for an idiot, incapable of thinking for himself to determine whether an information is “likely” or not. There is not much one can do about stupid and you will always have at least ten percent of the population in this category. But should the other 90% be deprived of basic freedoms of expression and exchange of information?
The Parliamentary leader of the conservative Les Républicains, Christian Jacob said: “they are putting in place a thought police; that which Mr. Macron finds good or bad.”
The new law would also allow France to ban foreign state run Televisions accused of promoting “false information.” In the line of fire are Russia Today and Sputnik. Unhappy with the way the Russian media covered his campaign, Macron has denied their reporters access to the Presidential Palace several times even though they have certified French press credentials.
“This law worries us,” said Xenia Fedorova, President of RT France. “It installs a climate of censorship, even self-censorship, for foreign media, who want to offer other points of view than that coming from the Elysees (Presidential Palace)” Federova told Le Figaro newspaper that other outlets which receive government money, BBC, Deutsche Well, France 24…should also be concerned.
While the National Union of Journalists, SNJ, denounces “a step towards censorship,” the leader of the left wing Insoumis Party, Jean-Luc Melenchon denounced targeting the Russians in “a battle for ‘soft power’ in an area where the United States reigned alone until now.”
The opposition has filed some 200 Amendments in an attempt to block the legislation but the Macron government has been using a French law which allows a straight vote on a text without debate. It allows the President to rule by decree. If Macron wants this law, he will get it.
President Macron’s attempts to control his image have bucked up against the public’s right to know. He refused to grant interviews to the French media for almost all his first year in office, relying on photo-ops to create public opinion. So much so, that he spends ten thousand euros a month on make-up, it was revealed in August 2017. Confronted by growing protests to his reforms, the French President finally gave two TV interviews in France in March. I agree: this law is a “dangerous step” towards Macron’s desire to control what people see and hear.