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Czechia considers criminalizing “disinformation”

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The Czech government is considering sweeping new “disinformation” laws that will empower the government to block “disinformation sites that threaten national security” and prosecute those that are deemed to be “spreading misinformation.”

The government also plans to stop advertising on websites that are branded as “disinformation websites” and to allocate millions of euros to media outlets and non-profits that fight disinformation.

Michal Klíma, the Czech government envoy for media and disinformation, noted that the laws will only apply to content from abroad.

These proposed disinformation laws will be overseen by a new “Department of Strategic Communication and Facing Disinformation” that will be made up of 19 government officials. Half of the roles in this new department are expected to be filled by existing government employees and the other half are expected to be new hires.

According to Klíma, the government could start discussing the plans in March 2023.

The plans have been detailed in a 20-page “Action Plan for Facing Disinformation” document but the Czech government has refused to make the latest version of the document public and has even rejected media requests under Czechia’s law on free access to information.

Online Czech news server iROZHLAS obtained and published a shorter November 2022 version of the plan last year.

In an interview with the Czech news website Seznam Zprávy, Klíma defended the proposed laws.

When quizzed on whether it was necessary to criminalize spreading misinformation, Klíma argued that existing law isn’t sufficient to deal with “cases of misinformation.”

Klíma also provided an example of the type of content that he hopes to be criminalized under this law:

“In the future, for example in the next elections, we will see counterfeits that will spread and that will pretend that one or the other presidential candidate may have worked with the KGB. Next time, a forgery may appear, saying: Here’s a KGB binding protocol, some messages, etc. The Russians will certainly be happy to prepare it, or anyone else can prepare it. I think that the deliberate spread of a similar type of counterfeits, knowing that it is a lie, should be a criminal offense. But that’s my opinion as a legal layman.”

When asked about the plans to shut down disinformation sites that threaten national security, Klíma said there will be a law that determines the circumstances that allow the Czech government to shut down a website and branded claims that “there will be an office here to turn off the sites” as “complete nonsense.”

Klíma added that the government defines disinformation as “content that poses a serious threat to national security, in particular the promotion of Russian interests, spread from Russia, containing false or truly fundamentally distortive information.”

Klíma refused to provide specifics on how the government will decide whether a site contains disinformation and said that the government would “assess what is in the information space for misinformation and react at that moment” when there’s “a threat to national security, such as a denunciation of war.”

Vojtěch Gavrininův, the journalist who interviewed Klíma, also pressed him on how the plans could limit the independence of Czech media outlets.

“Isn’t that a contradiction – state-paid independent media?” Gavrininův asked.

But Klíma dismissed the concerns, argued that “there is a media support system in civilized countries,” and said the state gives money to media outlets in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden.

These proposed disinformation laws build upon the online speech restrictions that already exist in Czechia.

Citizens can be jailed for three years if they share social media posts supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The country also has laws against “spreading an alarm message.”

In addition to its laws that restrict speech, Czechia is also a signatory of the “Declaration for the Future of the Internet” which includes commitments to bolster “resilience to disinformation and misinformation.”

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