Weeding Out Fake Journalism

Having spent two decades working as a journalist, combined with three decades of human rights studies and my background as the former Director General in the Office of German Federal Chancellor Kohl, I have had a chance to observe the trends of journalism over the years. These different perspectives have taught me that free speech and freedom of the press are not just conceptually a vital part of parliamentary democracy - they also form its lifeblood on a daily basis.

WE ALSO KNOW THAT these freedoms are not to be taken for granted and that they must be constantly guarded and defended. One condition for their functioning is public trust and confidence in the honesty of those who produce the news. The most recent challenge comes from the use of the Internet, or more precisely its abuse. The distribution of lies seems to grow in some areas into a business of its own; they affect tangible and intangible values, and can wreak irreparable havoc on individuals, companies and even states. No wonder fake news has become a challenge for the public as whole. As a response, the European Union, the United States and others states have recently considered initiatives to combat the spread of false news.

It has become clear that in practice, the timing of efforts to correct fake news will be essential. When refutation takes a longtime, it is likely that the damage has already occurred, and it may not have just impacted personal reputations, but also careers, opportunities and the development of business. As Winston Churchill once said: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”.

To produce fake news is also unfair to honest colleagues. The producer of fake news does not go out to find and protect sources; instead he sits at home at his table, invents his own news and endangers the reputation of his profession. Hopefully, the technical means such as search engines may help, but progress has been slow.

A particularly troubling illustration of fake practice today concerns the spreading of lies in the face of well-known truth, even if confirmed by a competent authority such as a court of law. Obviously, fake news is at its lowest level when its author repeats discredited lies. This author personally witnessed problems of this kind in the context of the proceedings before the European Court of Justice in which he took part.

Vladimir Peftiev, a successful Belarusian businessman had brought a case against the European Union because he had been placed on a sanctions list without proper reason. The court found the sanctions unlawful and agreed with Mr. Peftiev. The court held, therefore, that these sanctions must be annulled.

“By virtue of the annulling judgment, the annulled acts, insofar as they concern Mr. Peftiev, are deleted retroactively from the legal order and deemed never to have existed and consequently Mr. Peftiev is deemed never to have been listed.”

Notwithstanding this clear decision, published in 2014, many concerned Internet sources, including respected data information providers, have decided, for whatever reason, to ignore the highest European Court, and still today, in 2018, have on their servers the outdated, discredited information.

Another aspect of fake news has come out. A portion of the media ignored the judgment of the European Court of Justice in favor of Mr. Peftiev, even though the original fake news underlying the sanctions had been published in virtually all media. While fake news was considered newsworthy, its refutation by the court went unnoticed by the same media. Similar cases of many businessmen and politicians illustrate the broader public agenda: the prohibition to publish fake news, the removal of information that is recognized as false, the punishment of the authors of fake news for causing harm to honest journalism by publishing their names to the public, protection, and effective compensation for the victims, including the right of the public to bring a case.

Today, the national governments and the international community are far from establishing a legal order based on such principles. Who should take the initiative? In particular, how can we structure the reforms so as to also protect the freedom of the press and of the Internet, without placing a chill on good and honest journalism? We need a broad public debate on this topic, one that will protect the benefits of these freedoms and will weed out the dark actors. The business community has its own stake in the upcoming reforms.

In conclusion, I would like to recall Cicero’s words: “injustice is achieved in two ways: either by violence or by deception.” That is, in modern terms, the ancient Roman politician and philosopher placing banditry (terrorism) and fake news at one level. Do modern politicians understand this problem the way ancient politicians did over 2,000 years ago?

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