SHARE
COPY LINK

FAKE NEWS

Fake news: Does Spain’s disinformation battle plan limit freedom of expression?

A Spanish government plan to fight disinformation has sparked complaints from the media and the opposition, which say it limits free expression and seeks to establish a "ministry of truth".

Fake news: Does Spain's disinformation battle plan limit freedom of expression?
Photo: AFP

The plan, which came into effect last month after it was approved by the National Security Council, outlines how government bodies — including intelligence agency CNI and the foreign and defence ministries — should respond to disinformation.   

It uses the European Commission's definition of disinformation as “verifiably false or misleading information created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public”.

The plan establishes four stages of action, starting with monitoring the internet to detect disinformation campaigns and ending with a possible “political response” from the government if it is deemed necessary.

This could, for example, be a diplomatic protest if there is proof that a foreign state is behind the campaign.

Intermediate steps involve working with the media and launching a government information campaign to correct the false information being spread.   

The plan is Spain's answer to a request from the European Union for member states to step up their fight against disinformation. Brussels has accused China and Russia of mounting targeted disinformation campaigns to undermine European democracy.

While the Madrid Press Association (APM) acknowledged the state needs to fight disinformation, it warned of an “obvious risk” that the plan would lead the government to act “more like a censor than as a guarantor of the truth”.

The plan “leaves everything in the hands of the government” and calls for the media to be consulted only “if needed”, said Luis Ayllon, an APM board member who used to work for the conservative daily newspaper ABC.

“The media should control the government rather than the government control the media,” he told AFP.

The leader of the rightwing Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado, went further, accusing Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of “issuing an order to monitor the media” and “creating an Orwellian ministry of truth,” in a nod to George Orwell's novel “1984” about a totalitarian state.   

But many of the measures have been in place for some time, with the previous PP government monitoring social networks to detect disinformation campaigns linked to the Catalan independence drive three years ago.

Vaccine worries

Justice Minister Juan Carlos Campo rejected the criticism, telling the Senate on Tuesday the aim was to “fight disinformation campaigns” and not to “censor” news stories.

“It is not to say what is or is not the truth, nor to close web pages, remove broadcast licences or put journalists in jail,” he added.   

As an example, the government has cited the need to be prepared for any disinformation campaign about being vaccinated against Covid-19 once a vaccine is available.

Like other EU nations, Spain has struggled to contain a flood of fake news on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, especially during election campaigns.

In the run-up to Spain's April 2019 election, some 9.6 million voters — just over a quarter of the total — received WhatsApp messages deemed to be peddling false information, according to a study by online campaign group Avaaz.

Among the stories disseminated were claims that Sanchez had agreed to back independence for the northeastern Catalonia region and that his grandfather fought alongside General Francisco Franco during Spain's 1936-39 civil war.

'Disproportionate' reaction

Alexandre Lopez-Borrull, a professor in information sciences at the Open University of Catalonia, said the government should have sought “maximum political consensus” for its plan in order to gain more acceptance in Spain's polarised political climate.   

“Many groups felt targeted,” he told AFP.    

But Manuel R.Torres Soriano, a political scientist at the Universidad Pablo de Olavide in Seville who has written a book about disinformation, said the reaction from the opposition and the media has been “disproportionate”.

“It's an attempt to administratively organise the work of different state bodies that already supervise disinformation. It does not create new capacities, nor does it interfere with anything,” he told AFP.

“Unfortunately, this plan to fight against disinformation has become fuel for acts of disinformation,” he said.

By Daniel Silva and Alvaro Villalobos

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

BUDGET

At last! Spain passes budget in boost for minority government

Spain's Senate is poised to approve Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's budget for 2021 later Tuesday, boosting his minority Socialist-led government after years of political instability.

At last! Spain passes budget in boost for minority government
File image of a debate in Spain's parliament. Photo: AFP

Spain's Senate approved Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's budget for 2021 on Tuesday, boosting his minority Socialist-led government after years of political instability.

The spending plan, which channels billions of euros in European Union pandemic recovery funds into the economy, was approved by the lower house on December 3 before receiving the Senate's backing.

Its passage increases the chances that Sanchez will hold on to power until the next general election set for 2023.
   It became the first budget to be approved since 2018.   

The rise of new parties such as far-left Podemos and market-friendly Ciudadanos has fractured parliament, making it difficult to pass legislation.    

This has led to a cycle of political instability that has taken Spain, the euro zone's fourth largest economy, to four elections between 2015 and 2019.    

“This is a very, very important stage because it allows Pedro Sanchez to gain time and stability,” said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

'Sanchez never admits defeat'

Sanchez came to power in June 2018 but was forced to call fresh elections early last year after Catalan separatist parties voted down his draft budget.   

The budget vote came on the heels of the start of a high-profile trial of Catalan separatist leaders over Catalonia's failed 2017 bid to break away from Spain.

“Sanchez has shown throughout his career that he never admits defeat,” said Paloma Roman, politics professor at Madrid's Complutense University.    

After two inconclusive general elections in 2019, Sanchez in January 2020 formed a minority coalition government with Podemos.   

He initially tried to win support for his 2021 budget from Ciudadanos.    

But after that failed, he controversially turned to several smaller regional nationalist parties, including Bildu, the heirs of the former political wing of armed Basque separatist group ETA.

Sanchez took office in 2018 with the backing of these parties, but the pact with Bildu sparked an outcry from the right and even criticism from within his Socialist party.

Given the make-up of parliament, “there was no other possible majority” to help pass the budget, said Bartomeus.

'Not be easy'

In exchange for the support of these parties for his budget, Sanchez agreed a series of measures, including a moratorium on evictions for poor families which cabinet is set to approve on Tuesday.

While approval of the budget ensures Sanchez's government will last, he still faces “years of permanent negotiations within his government and in parliament” to approve laws, said Cristina Monge, a political scientist at the University of Zaragoza.

The Socialists and Podemos, their junior coalition partners, are divided over many issues such as migration, the future of the monarchy and the need to raise the minimum wage.

Sanchez's ties with Catalan ally ERC also risk becoming more tense as Catalonia's regional elections on February 14 nears.   

“It will not be easy for the government to resist these tensions, but neither of the two (coalition partners) has any real interest in separating” and bringing down the government, said Bartomeus.

Monge said Podemos is falling in the polls and the Socialists do not have enough support to govern alone so the “price they would pay” if they split would be “too high”.

By AFP's Mathieu Gorse 

 

SHOW COMMENTS