Is fake news or a censorship more threatening to democracy?
French lawmakers passed two highly controversial laws to target the publishing and circulation of fake news and their ability to influence elections. The laws empower judges and broadcasting commissions to pull down false information as well as shut down media stations broadcasting fake news. But left-wing and right-wing opposition condemn the laws as a clampdown on free speech.
The French National Assembly made the laws in response to fears of foreign meddling in the country’s elections. Allegations of Russian meddling in the US presidential election, Brexit and the recent French presidential election compelled France to take the precautions for coming elections.
What do the Laws Actually Do?
French President Emmanuel Macron announced earlier this year that the laws were coming. He specifically singled out Sputnik and RT, two Russian-owned media, for circulating untrue information or propaganda. The two media organizations denied the charges.
The laws passed because Macron’s party and allies dominate the lower house. With their overwhelming votes, they overruled the Senate, which does not approve of the new laws.
The new laws empower judges to demand internet companies remove any “incorrect or misleading allegations or accusations” that are likely to bias an election. Internet companies over a set size will also be required to reveal relevant data about any advertisers publishing content aiming to influence a vote or election. Furthermore, broadcasting commissions are empowered to shut down any radio or TV stations foreign governments use to promote biased content.
Reaction to France’s New Laws
Culture Minister Franck Riester said fake news and other false information threaten election activities everywhere in the world. According to him, the new laws are required for transparency in elections and to boost public confidence in general elections.
“It erodes the freedom of every citizen to form their opinions,” Riester said of fake news. “It blurs the line between true and false and saps confidence in information. It distorts the fairness of elections and destabilizes democracy.”
The opposition, however, cautions the laws threaten to create a ‘thought police.’
Communist Party deputy Elsa Faucillon said the laws were “at best useless, at worst counterproductive and therefore dangerous.” She also claimed it was impractical for the courts to decide in 48 hours what was truthful or false information.
The Les Republicains party said there is nothing good in the laws, and there is no way they would not be abused. They said the government is at risk of suppressing press freedom, promoting censorship and violating principles of personal rights to self-expression.
“Violations of the freedom of the press, of expression and of opinion, the risk of self-censorship, the risk of, in quotation marks, a thought police, are among those that we see on the horizon,” said conservative lawmaker and Les Republicains party member Constance Le Grip.