Authoritarianism and Fake News
"Africa – State Control of Internet and Fake News in Times of Covid-19”

Do Controls to Manage Fake News in Africa Affect Freedom of Expression?
Freedom and cover - Africa

Fake news and disinformation are a growing problem in the digital age. Messenger services and social media make the distribution of such unchecked information, which is often associated with emotional images or videos, fast and easy.  "The opportunities for spreading fake news are almost unlimited," explains Agnieszka Walorska, a German technology innovation expert. It is difficult to tell whether the information is verified and based on facts. The current Covid-19 pandemic seems to be particularly susceptible to such activities. 

Disinformation and fake news are also troubling Africa. State intervention and much tougher action against fake news, would likely contain or at least mitigate the problem. In some African countries, however, leaders have used the opportunity of the crisis to reinforce their fight against fake news, at the immediate expense of freedom of opinion and freedom of the press. For example, in some African countries, statements by the opposition were banned and the Internet was downright censored, especially with regard to statements criticising the government. This happened long before there was even a single confirmed Covid-19 infection in the respective countries. In South Africa, in contrast, "you can actually get arrested for spreading fake news", states Refilioe Ntsekhe, Member of Provincial Parliament, South Africa. 

FNF Africa organized an online panel discussion on "state control of internet and fake news in the time of Covid-19". Six experts from four African countries as well as from Germany were discussing state influence on media and press freedom in the current Covid-19 crisis. Ann Cathrin Riedel, a German digital activist, cited the WHO: "Not only have we this worldwide pandemic, but we also have a so called infodemic".

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The experts agreed and Clement Stambuli, a Malawian politician, makes clear, "we are having a big problem here in Africa regarding fake news". There is a need to respond to this and to protect the population to some extent. Lately, however, measures to ban statements that are unpopular with the government are used frighteningly often by autocratic heads of state. Flavia Kalule Nabagabe, People Power Movement Uganda, observes an increase in human rights violations in the course of the crisis in Uganda – a country, which anyway does not priorities the protection of human rights. Flavia stressed that the government in office since 1986, while trying to contain the pandemic in the country, at least accepts human rights violations and, for example, prohibits all activities of opposition parties under threat of torture, all this under the guise of combating fake news. Even the elections in Uganda, which are scheduled for 2021, are currently uncertain due to the pandemic. It is out of question that these measures are clearly unproportional. 

The experts were looking for ways of targeted action against fake news and hatred without restricting civil liberties but also without strengthening the freedom of the media and speech. There was agreement among the panellists that this is a challenging task, but the issue is currently too often abused in Africa to keep the people quiet and provide an opportunity to extend the terms of office of those in power. "It is alarming that the government is not only fighting the pandemic, but also opposition activities and statements critical of the government", summerizes Flavia Kalule Nabagabe.