The French government has taken down a Covid-19 “fake news” page after accusations it had overstepped its constitutional role and infringed press freedoms.
A page called Desinfox – a play on the word desintox (detox) – appeared on the government’s website last week. It claimed to be busting disinformation about coronavirus in the French media.
After the country’s journalists’ union reported the government to the Conseil d’État, the highest administrative court in France, France’s culture minister, Franck Riester, announced the page would be removed.
The Syndicat National des Journalists (SNJ) had filed an emergency appeal with the court requesting a judge order the 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 the expression of opinions and on the neutrality of public authorities”.
The union’s lawyers argued that, while claiming to fight disinformation, “the government is making a selection of information considered reliable and that which could be considered fake news”.
They said the Desinfox page created “a confusion between the media who deserve to be cited by the government at the risk of introducing into the mind of the reader suspicions over the relations between the press and the political world”.
They added the page was “a clear interference by public authorities in the freedom of the press at a time when journalists should, according to the European court of human rights, be the ‘watchdogs of democracy’”.
In a letter published in Le Monde on Sunday, about 30 journalists’ and editors’ organisations had joined a chorus of objections to the page, arguing that the state “is not the arbiter of information”. France’s main daily newspapers as well as magazines and the country’s state television and radio network were among the signatories.
“By distinguishing this or that article on its site, the government gives the impression – in a damaging mix of genre – of labelling the production of certain media. According to the same logic, the others being not worthy of being printed. The state has no legitimacy to do this in a country where press freedom is a fundamental freedom,” it read.
Speaking in the Assemblée Nationale, Riester told MPs: “As a result of concerns about the page … it will be removed from the government’s website. It is not a question of the state labelling the media or directing the choice of French people towards this or that media,” he said.