World News

Macron Pushes Bill Aimed at ‘Fake News’ as Critics Warn of Dangers

Posted June 6, 2018 5:25 p.m. EDT

PARIS — Taking aim at fake news, France’s parliament on Thursday is set to begin debating a tough bill aimed at repressing phony news items, one pushed by President Emmanuel Macron amid criticism that it poses a potential threat to press freedom.

The measure would allow judges to block content deemed false during a three-month period preceding an election.

Macron, stung last year by a phony internet-spread story claiming he had an offshore account in the Bahamas, has made fighting “fake news” a priority. His opponent, the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, brought up the Bahamas story during a critical presidential debate. Now, she is attacking the proposed law as a “liberty killer.”

Shortly after the new year, Macron told a press gathering that he would aim to “protect our democracy from these false stories” by cracking down on phony reports.

“In an instant,” through thousands of accounts, the president said, “lies created to sully a politician, a personality, a public figure, a journalist can spread throughout the world, in every language.”

Under the new law, judges would have 48 hours to decide if “any allegation or imputation” in a news item was “devoid of verifiable elements that would make it credible.” Only items written “in bad faith” could be blocked, and again it would be up to the judge to decide.

Critics say that among the law’s other problems, 48 hours is too short to make such judgments. They also expressed concern that the process could put journalists’ sources at risk.

Macron has a big majority in the National Assembly, and the legislation is likely to pass.

But the president’s proposal aroused opposition from the moment he presented it: from journalists who see it as an attack on press freedom; from analysts who view it as unnecessary because France has had a law since 1881 aimed at false news stories; and from the political opposition, which sees the measure as a threat to democracy and is generally wary of what it considers to be Macron’s power grabs.

“The potential risk in this law is if it winds up in the hands of a government with the wrong motives,” said Hervé Saulignac, a Socialist member of parliament who is leading the opposition. “That’s where it could lead to catastrophe.”

Saulignac said, “There is no clear frontier in the law between journalists who follow the rules, and all the rest.” Mainstream journalists, he said, “could be attacked for fake news, simply because, for instance, you have attacked me.”

Beyond that, he said, “How can it be proved in just 48 hours that I don’t have an account in the Bahamas?”

“At a time when the press is threatened around the world, it is better to protect the press,” Saulignac said.

Macron’s ambiguous attitude toward journalists has been much commented on in the French news media. Tellingly, he announced his fake news measure, in a tone of admonition, to mainstream journalists who had gathered in January for the traditional presidential New Year’s greeting to the press.

If any group of journalists in France needed no warning about steering clear of unverified information, it was that one. Yet Macron made a point of telling those gathered that they needed principles and an ethics code, before announcing the new bill.

Journalists, an exasperated Macron told a television interviewer last fall during a school visit, “are too interested in themselves, and not enough in the country.” Journalists, he said, “don’t interest me, it’s the French who interest me. That’s what you’ve got to understand.”

Patrick Eveno, a professor of media history at the Sorbonne, said he saw good and bad in the legislation. He said it “puts the problem of false information in the public square, and that’s important.” Yet it may be ineffective, he said, because “it’s extremely difficult for a judge in 48 hours, in an electoral period, to decide what is fake news.”

If Macron is uninterested in journalists, journalists here are extremely interested in his efforts at regulating journalism.

Commenting on the proposed law, Le Monde warned against the “perilous nature” of information regulation. And Christophe Deloire, the secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, asked: “What if the judge can’t decide? To establish that something is manifestly false in 48 hours is extremely rare.”

The group’s criticisms, however, have been relatively muted, and amount to suggesting changes to the bill rather than rejecting it outright. “The goal of stopping the circulation of manipulatory content having nothing to do with journalism is legitimate and comprehensible, but the proposed solutions could wind up being without effect or even counterproductive,” it warned in a statement.

Others have wondered about the utility of a new law.

France being a country that generally respects freedom of the press, prosecutions under the 1881 fake news law are relatively rare. Nevertheless, it clearly spells out that the “publication, diffusion or reproduction by whatever means, of false news,” among other offenses, is punishable.

“Will it be useful or efficient?” asked Boris Vallaud, a spokesman for the opposition Socialists, referring to the new bill. “From our point we already have enough laws against fake news. And besides, it will merely bring attention to the fake news we’re fighting.”

The bill’s author insists that it is all about protecting journalists, not regulating them. Bruno Studer, a member of parliament in Macron’s political movement, rejects the term “fake news,” saying President Donald Trump has used it “to discredit journalists.” On the contrary, he said, it is “journalists who protect us from fake news.”

“The text protects those who furnish real information,” he said. “We are not attacking authors; we’re attacking distribution,” Studer said.

The sharpest criticism has come from Macron’s opponents on the far left, who make up the core of the political opposition in France today.

“This is nothing less than a crude attempt at controlling information and its means of diffusion,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the France Unbowed party, wrote on his blog.