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‘Fake news’ bill proves divisive

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The House legal committee heard on Wednesday a wide range of opinions on the so-called ‘fake news’ bill, a proposal which seeks to criminalise personal insults online.

The proposed amendment to the criminal code is proving divisive, however.

The stated aim of the proposal is to protect the public from online attacks but there are concerns that it may also act as a tool to curb free speech – opening the door to potentially protect politicians from criticism.

Key concerns were raised by Akel and the journalist ethics committee, both pointing to potential limitations on freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Akel MPs Aristos Damianos and Andreas Kafkalias asked that criticism in the course of public life be protected – with the amendment limited to personal insults of a person’s private life.

Elli Kotziamani, head of the journalist ethics committee, further called for journalists and the media to be exempt as the sector is already self-regulated.

She further raised the concern as to which body will be responsible for passing judgement as to when a violation has occurred.

A representative from the legal services stated that safeguards have been put in place to limit criminal offences to situations where there is blatant violation with intent. The representative added that art and satire are to be exempt from the criminalisation.

They added that more discussion is required and clarified that some bodies such as the journalist ethics committee had not been involved until Wednesday. The committee asked the justice minister that discussions continue, and the matter be revisited after Easter.

Nikos Tornaritis, Disy MP and head of the committee, said the bill will provide protection and security for members of the public who receive obscene, threatening, abusive or other such attacks, either through online messages or posts.

“The committee’s intent is not to protect public figures from criticism, nor do we intend to silence journalists. Protection of freedom of speech and opinion is a human right, which we have obviously considered to come up with the text before us today,” he said.

Tornaritis added that many other EU countries have such measures in place and said the amendment is needed to protect children from online attacks.

But Akel’s Damianos said that there must be a delicate balance which the bill in its current state does not achieve.

“Of course we must protect the public from arbitrary actions from random people, but at the same time we must protect constitutionally guaranteed rights and values, freedom of speech and expression, the right to criticise public figures, the right to criticise the actions of public figures.

“We should vote for something that protects the individual’s privacy, but at the same time does not provide a pretext for the arbitrary conduct of public figures,” he said.

Charalambos Theopemptou, head of the Greens party, said that he is concerned over the proposal and emphasised that a much deeper and inclusive discussion must first take place.

“We do not want to restrict journalistic freedom, neither should they fear writing about a politician’s actions – my opinion is that what we heard today is serious and important and therefore requires more discussion,” he said.

The bill received renewed attention after House president Annita Demetriou filed a police report over fake news articles targeting her and her family.

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