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French fake news bill sparks censorship fears

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French Culture Minister and former publisher Françoise Nyssen RFI/Pierre René-Worms

French MPs debated the government's plan to fight fake news into the early hours of Friday morning as opposition MPs expressed fears that the measure could lead to online censorship.


As the European Union works on a code of practice for social media companies, the French government has joined Britain and Italy in trying to limit the spread of fake news.

France, like the US, has seen accusations of Russian meddling in its presidential election campaign last year.

Then candidate Emmanuel Macron accused Russian media of spreading online rumours that he was gay and had a secret offshore account and pledged to tackle the phenomenon.

The bill would give the country's broadcasting authority the power to take foreign-based media off the air if they are seen to be attempting to "destabilise" France.

During Thursday night's debate, hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon accused the government of taking Washington's side in a soft-power battle between the US and Russia and asked if the government planned to ban Russian state-owned outlets Sputnik News and RT, which opened a French-language service last December.

Difficult to define

Even before the debate, the ruling Republic on the Move party ran into trouble over how to define fake news.

A first definition - "any allegation or imputation of a fact lacking verifiable elements that would appear to prove it true" - was dropped.

After midnight on Thursday the government produced a new definition - "any inaccurate or misleading allegation or imputation of a fact" but Culture Minister Françoise Nyssen, who is steering the bill through parliament, declared it too general and expressed the hope that the Senate would come up with a "more satisfying" one.

Both left-wing and right-wing opposition MPs slammed the government's "confusion" and "lack of preparation".

Judges to decide

The bill would allow candidates or parties to seek an injunction to stop the dissemination of false information during the three-months preceding a national election.

A judge would decide on the case within 48 hours.

Opposition MPs laid into the proposal to leave judges as arbitrators of truth, a concern that has been echoed in the press.

"Do you think this law ... could be placed in anyone's hands?" asked Socialist Hervé Saulignac, raising the specter of a possible future authoritarian government exploiting the provision.

And mainstream right MP Constance Le Grip warned of the risk of "claims labelled 'fake news' by a judge being proven to be true a few days later".

National Alliance leader Marine Le Pen called the proposed law an "indelible stain" and accused ministers of being "dangerous people", prompting a sharp response from Nyssen.

"Madame Le Pen, so far as fake news is concerned, it's true that you have great expertise," the minister shot back, no doubt remembering the then National Front candidate's reference to the secret account rumours during her final TV debate with Macron.

Social media targeted

The government insists that it is not targeting journalists but social media and online rumours, which "contribute to a gigantic economy of manipulation", according to Nyssen.

To this end it will require Facebook and other networks to reveal the names of companies behind sponsored content and how much they are paid, instal systems that allow users to report fake news and be more transparent about algorithms they use.

"A sure way of destroying freedom, faced with the current dangers, is to do nothing," said Nyssen, who ran a publishing house before joining the government.