EU Commission backs Spain’s protocol against disinformation campaigns

Brussels confirms the initiative answers its own call for cooperation, despite claims from the opposition that the government is trying to encroach on press freedom

Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo in Madrid on Monday.
Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo in Madrid on Monday.Fernando Villar (EFE)

The European Commission on Monday backed Spain’s protocol against disinformation campaigns, which attracted criticism from the opposition when it was published as part of a ministerial order last Thursday.

“The goal of the ministerial order is to guarantee Spain’s participation in the European Union’s Action Plan Against Disinformation,” said European Commission spokesperson Johannes Bahrke, alluding to an initiative that builds on the European Council’s call in 2018 for measures to “protect the Union’s democratic systems and combat disinformation.”

The European executive’s nod to the Spanish system to prevent, detect and respond to disinformation campaigns comes after some opposition parties in Spain had accused the government of creating a “Ministry of Truth” that would allegedly make decisions on content and provide media outlets with guidelines to follow.

The greatest threat to our democratic systems is the coup-plotting far right, and the behavior of certain powerful media concerns that show contempt for truth
Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias

On Monday, Bahrke noted that Spain’s new ministerial order merely updates the existing national system to prevent, detect and respond to disinformation campaigns, and also establishes coordination mechanisms.

Last week’s ministerial order in Spain updates an earlier one approved in March 2019, but which had not been made public. The protocol it contains, called “Procedure for Intervention against Disinformation,” was approved last month by Spain’s National Security Council.

The document makes provisions for the possibility of carrying out communication campaigns to counter fake news stories, stopping short of censoring them. It leaves it up to the government to decide what exactly constitutes misinformation, with no representatives from the media or journalist associations involved in the process.

Monitoring for disinformation campaigns was already taking place in Spain under the previous government, led by Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party (PP), in connection with the Catalan independence drive, which peaked in 2017 with an illegal referendum on secession from Spain and a unilateral declaration of independence.

But the PP’s current leader, Pablo Casado, last Friday said he would report the protocol to European authorities, mirroring his earlier denunciation of the government’s attempt at judicial reform, which Brussels warned could violate EU standards. On Monday, the Commission confirmed that the protocol is Spain’s answer to the EU’s request for coordinated action against disinformation.

We are living in times when lies are becoming information in any part of the world, and democracies need to fight this
Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo

Faced with the opposition’s claims of government interference in the media, leading members of the governing center-left coalition – made up of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos – on Monday defended Spain’s new protocol.

Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo stressed that the plan has “absolutely nothing to do” with freedom of the press or of expression.

“We have seen major television networks pull live information off the air because they considered it was not real news,” said Calvo, alluding to US President Donald Trump’s news conference alleging election fraud. “We are living in times when lies are becoming information in any part of the world, and democracies need to fight this, because it is part of our constitutional right.”

Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, who also serves as a deputy prime minister, told the Argentinean daily Página 12 that “the greatest threat to our democratic systems is the coup-plotting far right, and the behavior of certain powerful media that show contempt for the truth.”

And Defense Minister Margarita Robles underscored that “no government, much less in a democracy, has the job of watching what the media say.” In statements on the television network Antena 3, Robles conceded that perhaps the protocol had not been properly explained, and said that there was a difference between fake news, which the media have a responsibility to monitor, and “organized, malicious campaigns that aim to question democratic institutions.”

EU Rapid Alert System

The European plan created a Rapid Alert System to set off alarms in the event of disinformation campaigns aimed at destabilizing the EU or its member states. According to this plan, every country must designate a contact point to share the alerts with other member states and guarantee coordination with the European Commission and with the European External Action Service.

According to the EU’s plan, “disinformation is understood as verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm.”

Since 2014, the EU considers disinformation campaigns to be part of the hybrid war that Russia waged in Ukraine, where military aggression and the occupation of Crimea was combined with a deluge of allegedly false or manipulated information. Brussels created a unit called East Stratcom to debunk this news.

Following the conflict in Ukraine, the European Commission renewed its efforts to fight fake news ahead of the European elections of 2019. Measures have been intensified during the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen an explosion of false online information. In 2018 the Commission asked all member states to create national plans and structures to counter disinformation campaigns.

English version by Susana Urra.

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