The French National Assembly has approved two laws to crack down on false information during election campaigns, despite criticism from the opposition.
President Emmanuel Macron promised the law earlier this year amid widespread concern in Western Europe about the alleged role of Russian-owned media and Russian-backed social media accounts in backing populist forces during elections.
The new laws will empower judges, in the run-up to elections, to order internet firms to remove ‘incorrect or misleading allegations or accusations’ that are likely to bias elections if they are published widely via an internet service.
Internet firms over a certain size will also have to provide full information about any advertisers promoting content relating to matters of public debate in the run-up to a vote.
The law also gives broadcasting authorities wider powers to reject or cancel licences for radio or television stations that are owned or influenced by foreign governments.
Macron, a pro-EU liberal, has previously criticized Russian-owned media Sputnik and RT as organs of propaganda, charges they deny.
Macron's centrist party and allies used their majority in the lower house on Tuesday evening to pass the laws, with the right-wing and left-wing opposition voting against.
The vote overruled the conservative-leaning Senate, which had rejected the proposals, saying they were likely to be ineffective while at the same time threatening the freedom of expression.
‘At every election, everywhere in the world, false information is spread massively and rapidly on social media,’ Culture Minister Franck Riester told lawmakers ahead of the vote.
‘It erodes the freedom of every citizen to form their opinions,’ Riester warned. ‘It blurs the line between true and false, and saps confidence in information. It distorts the fairness of elections and destabilizes democracy.’ But the opposition remained unconvinced, with Communist Party deputy Elsa Faucillon slamming the law as ‘at best useless, at worst counterproductive and therefore dangerous.’ It was ‘impracticable’ for judges to decide what was true and what was false in the 48 hours prescribed in the law, she argued.
Conservative lawmaker Constance Le Grip said her Les Republicains party was ‘very sceptical’ about ‘the dubious effectiveness and real risks of misuse of this text.’ ‘And we once again solemnly warn against the undesirable consequences lying dormant in this text,’ Le Grip said.
‘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,’ she said.
During last year's election race between Macron and right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, then-foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Macron's campaign had been the victim of hacker attacks coming from Russia.
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