Spain ready to fight 'fake news' in Catalonia vote

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Madrid (AFP)

The Spanish government is seeking to allay fears of fraud in Thursday's Catalan election by announcing a slew of measures to limit the spread of false reports ahead of the official results.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government announced the steps after Spain warned the European Union of a cyber campaign of "disinformation and manipulation" being conducted from Russia and Venezuela.

- Manual count -

Polls open at 9:00 am (0800 GMT) and close at 8:00 pm (1900 GMT).

With electronic counting banned, polling stations will inform a private firm tasked by the central government of their individual manual count by phone.

The firm will announce results as they come in, and it is estimated that by around 10:00 pm (2100 GMT) some 80 percent of the votes will have been counted.

The government's official count will begin on December 24, with final results to be announced within three days.

"There will be no digital counting involved. That means that it will be impossible for a cyber attack to cause problems when the time comes to count the votes. Everything will be manual and on paper," a government official said.

Unlike in other elections around the world, there will be no exit polls.

- Fighting 'fake news' -

Wary of the spread of misinformation prior to the vote result, the government has put in place "a system to track potential fake news", a source close to the government said.

Media organisations could even be held legally accountable should they publish false information, the source said, adding that any offending websites could be blocked.

- Separatist audit -

A record turnout is widely expected in the Catalan vote, with 5.5 million people called to the ballot box.

Madrid called the election after deposing the regional government and parliament following an independence declaration on October 27 that sent shock waves around the EU, which was already rattled by Britain's decision to leave the bloc.

A separatist activist from the influential Catalan National Assembly (ANC) told AFP on condition of anonymity that many secessionists had initially feared the Spanish government could rig the vote.

While the ANC does not believe there will be fraud, some 4,000 pro-independence volunteers will be deployed on Thursday night for a parallel recount.

These volunteers will take the results counted by each polling station and send them to a centre in Barcelona.

"In the unlikely scenario that there is a significant discrepancy somewhere or in some of the counts, this will allow us to have a clear idea of where to ask for a recount," the ANC activist said.

An official from the separatist ERC party, whose leader Oriol Junqueras is campaigning from behind bars, said there would be "an exhaustive follow-up of all the polling stations".

But Rajoy's government said only the electoral commission in Madrid had the authority to conduct an official audit.