After hearing concerns that it had exceeded its constitutional duties and abused journalistic liberties, the French government shut down a Covid-19 “fake news” website.
Desinfox, a play on the word desintox, was recently published on the government’s website (detox). It claimed to be eliminating myths about coronavirus in the French media.
After the country’s journalists’ union filed a protest with France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d’Etat, France’s then-cultural minister, Franck Riester, hinted that the page would be withdrawn.
The Syndicat National des Journalistes (SNJ) requested an emergency order from the court requiring then-Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to delete the page and “put an immediate stop to the serious and manifestly illegal attack on the principles of pluralism in opinion expression and on the neutrality of public authorities.”
While professing to combat disinformation, the lawyers representing the union stated that “the government is selecting information considered as trustworthy and that which may be referred to as fake news.”
According to them, the Desinfox page caused “confusion amongst the media who deserve to be cited by the government, with the risk of instilling doubts in the reader’s minds about the press’s link to the political arena.”
The page was “an obvious intervention by public authorities into journalistic freedom at a time when, according to the European Court of Human Rights, journalists should be the ‘watchdogs of democracy,'” they continued.
Around 30 journalistic and editorial organizations condemned the website in a letter published in Le Monde, stating that the state is not an arbiter of truth. Among those represented were France’s leading daily newspapers, magazines, and national television network.
“By labeling this or that piece on its website, the government appears to be classifying certain media production – a dangerous genre combo.” Others are unsuitable for publication for the same reason. “There is no need for the state to do this in a society where press freedom is a fundamental right,” according to the statement.
“It will be removed off the government’s website in response to concerns about the page,” Riester told MPs in the Assemblée Nationale, “and it is not a case of the state labeling the media or influencing the French people’s tastes.”