The significance of the media at both societal and political level has become increasingly undeniable. The media has played a critical role in holding agencies accountable to their action and demanding accountability. While these roles are crucial to the development and the survival of democracy, they are also shunned by authorities and perceived to turn masses against regimes.
Making the work of media practitioners harder, a new phenomenon known as fake news has emerged as a great threat not only to the truth but also to the practice of journalism. Often articles published are declared as “Fake News”, and content pulled down. This brings us to the million dollar questions “What is fake news?” and who defines it. Some have described it as propaganda that consists of deliberate disinformation spread via media. However recent waves of abusive media laws have sprung up that are using fake news as means to regulate critical content shared online. We look at some of the countries that have leveraged the presence of fake news to come up with dangerous laws.
In Tanzania, the Cybercrime act 2015 clearly states “publication of false information” as an offense which unfortunately is abused to punish the exercise of fundamental human rights of freedom of expression and opinion. The law fails to clearly define critical reporting, genuine reporting mistakes and outright fake news. Complementing that is the online content regulation which was passed in 2018 governing the publication of content online which also necessitates licensing fee of up to USD 920. Recently Tanzanian acclaimed newspaper The citizen was ordered on a seven day shutdown for publishing content regarding depreciation of the shilling against the dollar on February 23 which was dubbed as “fake news” by the government.
In Uganda, this year has already seen several journalists arrested and the daily monitor ordered to shut down following investigation of alleged “fake news’ they published about a prominent member of the parliament. What about the social media tax in Uganda? The president of Uganda said that the tax would help deal with consequences of gossiping as well as lies propagated through social media. This same year, the police’s criminal Investigations Department (CID) summoned editors from five (5) online publications on allegations of publishing fake news. The police have stated their plan to charge them under Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act.
Last year in Sudan two journalists were given jail time for “false news” according to the Sudanese Journalist Network. Sudan has been on the throes of citizen uprising against the government during which massive abuse of press has been reported. In hopes to maintain control over the information landscape, censorship, suspension of critical outlets, confiscation of newspapers, and arbitrary detention of journalists have been employed. The Press and Publications Act (2009) allows for restrictions on the press in the interests of national security and public order.
On February 10, Foore was ordered to suspend publishing for one year and its editor-in-chief fined $300, following a conviction for publishing “false news” and anti-national propaganda. According to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, Somaliland is using problematic sections of the penal code on false news and propaganda to hack away at the basic freedoms the press needs to hold government leaders accountable. However, while the provisional constitution calls for freedom of the press, journalists face harassment, detention, fines and violence linked to their media law signed in 2016.
Last year Kenya signed the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act 2018, a law that criminalizes abuse on social media and the spread of information. It has been stated by Reuters that the law sets sanctions on any person who intentionally publishes false information. Paradigm Initiative, among other advocate groups, have argued that some parts of the law leaves room for the government to target journalists who are critical of the government or powerful citizens. Article 19 also expressed concern that the new law has provisions which attempt to reintroduce criminal defamation in a new form.
There seems to be a direct relationship between fake news and mainstream politics in this digital era. In cases where the law is used to control media and free expression online, the idea of law and order are used as mechanisms of intimidation. It is recommended that governments review and repeal provisions in laws that are undermining basic rights in a quest to foster a free society that harbours no ill intent for the greater good.
This article was written by Rebecca Ryakitimbo for Paradign Initiative.