The emphasis of new legislation currently aimed at tackling disinformation on social media primarily targets and plays on fears of foreign state actors pushing fake news through automated accounts and websites masquerading as the legitimate press, particularly in the context of election interference and the war in Ukraine. But “media privilege” within new legislation would offer an exemption for the press that largely ignores the way in which false narratives are perpetrated by mainstream news publishers.
EU DisinfoLab, in partnership with 15 other civil organisations, have released a joint statement on the proposed “media privilege” within new EU legislation that would protect news publishers from disinformation regulation, much in the same way as the Online Safety Bill. The European Media Freedom Act aims to create a universal framework to safeguard and prevent online surveillance, political interference and improve transparency of media ownership.
The statement from EU DisinfoLab says that the press exemption in Article 17 of EMFA creates “fast-track, non-transparent procedures to certain privileged actors that will have a major negative impact on the right to freedom of expression and information, even opening the door to rogue actors intent on distorting democratic public discourse.”
“Media actors should as a matter of principle not be granted special treatment when it comes to the moderation of their content shared on very large online platforms… in some EU member states, such as Hungary or Poland, public service broadcasting is captured by the ruling political parties and turned into a propaganda machine. Under the current wording of Article 17, these media actors would qualify for privileged treatment.” – EU DisinfoLab
During the 2019 General Election, leading fact-checking organisations found unprecedented levels of disinformation being circulated by ‘legitimate’ news outlets. Throughout Truth Defence’s coverage of disinformation from the war in Ukraine, the role of Western publishers in pushing misinformation online is notable and a recent investigation by journalists from a consortium of news outlets including The Guardian, Haaretz, Le Monde and Der Spiegel, has revealed that a secretive Israeli company offering ‘disinformation-fire-hire’ meddled in over 30 elections worldwide, using the established media as a key part of their disinformation strategy.
The investigation, which is Part 2 of the “Story Killers” project coordinated by Forbidden Stories, revealed that journalists have been paid by “Team Jorge”, to bypass newsrooms and garner media coverage for false information. The unit is run by a former Israeli special forces operative, whose name is Tal Hanan but goes under the pseudonym “Jorge”, who was filmed telling undercover reporters that his organisation had meddled in 33 elections worldwide and that 27 had been carried out successfully. He said that his services had been used by political campaigns, intelligence agencies and private entities to manipulate public opinion in Europe, the US, Africa as well as South and Central America.
On Thursday one of France’s most viewed news channels, BFMTV, fired one of its longest-serving presenters, after the investigation revealed that news packages linked to “Team Jorge”, had been able to bypass the channel’s usual vetting procedures on coverage spanning from 2021 to 2022. Veteran journalist Rachid M’Barki had planted coverage on numerous of issues: Russian oligarchs and the Monaco yachting industry, a Sudanese opposition leader and allegations of corruption in Qatar. He denies being paid for coverage and claims that he was duped.
These revelations raise concerns about the proposed media exemptions within the European Media Freedom Act and the Online Safety Bill. There are numerous cases where the media have played a role in distributing false information online. Leading fact-checking and counter-disinformation organisations have pinpointed how purveyors of disinformation target the media as an effective way to push false narratives into the mainstream and garner legitimacy.
Of course, the media exemption in the Online Safety Bill not only exists to ‘protect press freedom’ but to protect the interests of the government and the intelligence services who use the media to manipulate public opinion on policy and legislation. Press freedom and the right to know are essential to a democracy – it has been over a decade since David Cameron refused to legislate on the Leveson’s principles, stating “for the first time we would have crossed the rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land. We should I believe be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.”
Given that the Tory government has now attacked free speech with the Public Order Bill, the National Security Bill, the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill, anti-strike legislation, and now the Online Safety Bill, perhaps it is time to legislate on Leveson’s principles. At the very least there must be an exemption for publishers who have signed up to an independent regulator that meet all of Leveson’s regulations (Impress) who in its current wording would be censored.