Internet-based communications have made it easier and more affordable to communicate.
Unfortunately, this ease of sharing communication has also made it easier to disseminate misinformation.
At times, inaccurate information is shared deliberately as part of misinformation campaigns. “Fake news” is a blanket term that is now widely used to describe the spread of misinformation.
Unfortunately, this blanket term lacks any universally accepted definition. This lack of definition allows governments and any other public figures to dismiss any information they do not like or agree with as fake news.
The fight against fake news has provided some undemocratic governments with a convenient guise to shut down free expression online. This brief write-up summarises how some governments such as Tanzania, have used the fight against fake news to restrict free expression and access to information in the region.
In August, Zambia announced plans to introduce a tax on internet calls in a bid to curb the spread of fake news in that country. Mozambique announced exorbitant media licensing fees for foreign journalists seeking to work in the country. This was seen as a move to deter foreign media houses from operating in Mozambique.
Zimbabwe briefly appointed a ministry of Cyber Security Detection and Mitigation to catch “mischievous rats” who abused social media to spread falsehoods about the government. The government later transformed this ministry into a department in the ministry of Information Communications Technology.
Last week, the Tanzanian government tabled amendments to that country’s Statistics Act. Through these amendments, the Tanzanian government seeks to criminalise any collection, dissemination and analysis of data without the authority of the Tanzanian Chief Statistics Officer.
According to government sources, the reason for these drastic measures is to restrain the spread of fake news in that country. The amendments will, however, have an adverse impact on the right to access information and the correlated right to free expression. Both rights are enshrined in Tanzania’s constitution.
The proposed amendments will unreasonably restrict Section 18(a) of the Tanzanian Constitution that grants every person the “…right to seek, receive and, or disseminate information…” It is unreasonable to demand that people only gather information, for example, through surveys only after getting permission to do so from the Chief Statistician.
A prohibition on the collection of data will also inhibit the media’s ability to fact-check media stories, especially stories that are thought to be critical of the government. It is for this reason that MISA Zimbabwe stands in solidarity with the Tanzanian media community in opposing to the passing of these restrictive amendments.
The Cameroonian government chose a different tactic in its fight against fake news. The government has reportedly engaged Facebook to assist reduce the spread of false information that government claims are mainly spread via Facebook and WhatsApp.
It remains to be seen what Facebook’s interventions will be and whether their efforts can be replicated in other African countries where Facebook and WhatsApp are also popular.