Russian outlets sparked Macron's fake news law plan, analysts

French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday announced plans for legislation to stop fake news spreading online in the run-up to elections. Observers see the remarks as a veiled reference to Moscow-backed television station RT and the Sputnik online news forum.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers his New Year wishes to the members of the press corps at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, January 3, 2018.
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers his New Year wishes to the members of the press corps at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, January 3, 2018. REUTERS/Ludovic Marin/Pool

Macron, who was elected in May, has previously lashed out at the Russian outlets, accusing them of spreading "deceitful propaganda" and being "organs of influence".

"We are going to develop our legal means to protect democracy against fake news," Macron said in a New Year's speech to the press.

He said that details of the bill will be released in the coming weeks, adding that media would be forced to reveal all sponsors of their content.

Judges will be able to order media to take down fake news, block access to offending websites and close social media accounts that spread untruths, Macron said.

The bill will be presented to parliament before the end of the year, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said on Thursday.

The problem is: what is fake news?

Macron targets fake news

Meanwhile, France's broadcasting regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de l'Audiovisuel (CSA), will check on broadcast media to "fight any destabilisation attempt by television channels controlled or influenced by foreign states", Macron said.

Macron wants a kind of self-censorship, comments Isabelle Veyrat-Masson, a research director and media specialist with at the CNRS thinktank in Paris.

“But the problem is: what is fake news?" she asks. “It is not easy to know what is fake and it is sometimes difficult to say what news is. Because very often, news looks like an opinion. And often, people consider something to be fake news when it is not their opinion. And the risk of making a law against fake news is that freedom of opinion may be infringed upon."

Internet exacerbates long-running problem

Governments have been trying to regulate rumours or “fake news” for a long time, Veyrat-Masson says, pointing out that France's 1881 press law had a clause on "fausses nouvelles" (fake news).

“It is an old problem, usually during war time or during crises. Macron is again trying to solve this problem.”

The internet has exacerbated it, she argues. “When you had the print press, there was a lot of fake news. But the fake news stopped at the end of the paper. With internet, everything is lasting."

But how to pin it down?

“It is very difficult to legislate freedom of expression and fake news since we have the right to say nonsense,” says Patrick Eveno, a media specialist with Sciences Po.

“It seems that [Macron's proposed] law is limited to election periods and only aimed at people who pay to broadcast false news. In reality, it may not be very effective since most of it comes from social networks so it is more for civil society and media professionals to find a solution,” he says.

Russia hacks Macron

Russia was involved in hacking the computers of Emmanuel Macron’s Republic on the Move party during last year's election campaign, according to anti-hacker companies such as the Japan's Trend Micro and Wired magazine quoting NSA director Michael Rogers.

Critics say that Russian-backed Twitter accounts and media outlets such as TV stations Russia Today and Sputnik used the information to influence the elections.

But both organisations deny any attempted manipulation.

On its French website, RT published several critical articles of Macron’s remarks, adding that “67 percent of the French think that freedom of expression is in danger”.

Freedom of the press

Dmitry Babich, who works for Sputnik and contributes to RT, calls Macron’s remarks proof of “how much the West’s so-called democracy degraded since the 1970s”, when the Washington Post published the Watrergate revelations and the Pentagon Papers.

"Now the leader of a big European country can openly call for banning the media because they published leaked documents," he comments, although Macron's remarks on Wednesday did not include a specific proposal to ban the publication of leaks.

“If these documents were true, then he should respond," Babich argues. "He should explain why these documents are representing him or his party in a bad light. He should not be going after the media that publish them.”

Macron “cannot cite evidence that RT or Sputnik intentionally lied” in their reporting, he says.

Germany this week passed a “Law on the Improvement of Enforcement in Social Networks,” the NetzDG that also targets fake news.

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