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The Official Fake News

Emmanuel Macron, who was comfortably elected to the presidency with the support of almost the entire French media, has demanded that his parliamentary majority provide him with a law against ‘fake news’ during election campaigns. Perhaps he’s preparing for the next one.

The draft legislation reveals both the blindness of those who govern when challenged and their inclination to invent new coercive countermeasures. You would have to be myopic indeed to believe that the victory of ‘anti-establishment’ candidates, parties and causes (Donald Trump, Brexit, the Catalan referendum, Italy’s Five Star Movement) could, even marginally, be the consequence of authoritarian regimes spreading fake news. The US press has been trying to demonstrate for a year, as yet without conclusive evidence, that Trump owes his election to fake news manufactured by Vladimir Putin.

Macron has a similar obsession, to the point of hoping to make fake news vanish with a law that is both useless and dangerous. Useless because France’s Council of State pointed out on 19 April that ‘French law already contains several measures intended to combat the dissemination of false information’: in particular the law of 29 July 1881 on the freedom of the press, which permits curbs on the dissemination of false information and the expression of views that are defamatory or abusive or incite hatred.

And dangerous because the bill about to go before parliament would require a judge to act within 48 hours to ‘stop the artificial and large-scale dissemination of news constituting false information.’ But, the Council of State’s response continued, ‘these are hard to determine legally, especially when the judge must give a judgement within a very short time.’ Macron’s law would also strengthen Internet service providers’ and hosts’ duty of cooperation with the authorities, since it extends to all false information restraints that were initially aimed at preventing ‘apologism for crimes against humanity, incitement to hatred and child pornography.’

Media ownership by the president’s billionaire friends, toxic advertising claims, and suppressing public television channels’ funding are not the subject of any draft law. And why limit this judicial apparatus to the campaign season? In the past few decades, in almost every war — in the Gulf, Kosovo, Iraq and Libya — there has been a proliferation of lies and news manipulation. Not by Russia, Facebook or social media, but by our beacons of democracy and journalism: the major western daily newspapers, with the New York Times in the vanguard, the White House and European capitals. Not to mention the Ukrainian government, which deliberately announced the false death of a journalist last month. If a judge needs to order the arrest of the people responsible for spreading this fake news, at least they’ll be easy to find…

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Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique

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