Fake news and cyber policy: Is fake news defining Africa’s cyber policy?
The proliferation of fake news and misinformation has deepened concerns as it has created opportunities to further shrink the functions of a pluralistic and independent African press landscape as envisioned by the Windhoek Declaration.
Increasingly, misinformation has been used by States as grounds for arrests, threats, and in extreme cases has served as the basis for disruptions to digital communications, especially during times of protest, elections, criticism and more recently, during the COVID19 pandemic.
As the crafting of news and information and its dissemination evolved over the years, one of the constant elements of this evolution has been the presence of misinformation. This age-old problem has more recently gained prominence with the proliferation of social media as a key communication platform, more so the increase in independent online content creators, through to States keen on shaping and maintaining particular narratives.
For citizens in many African States, there remains the shared concern about the extent to which the emerging cyber policies are shaping online civic spaces, including digital rights extended to press freedom, access to information, freedom of expression, and association online.
Zooming in on the continental cyber policies
Africa’s cyber policy landscape has often been informed by responses to events such as terrorism attacks which saw the proliferation of anti-terrorism laws since the early 2000’s. Many cyber related policies introduced during this time, blurred the lines between press freedom and freedom of expression, and enabled the suppression of State critics – often under the guise of protecting national security.
Since the turn of the century, cyber related policies and regulations have emerged to shape and inform how the State, citizens and the media engage online. However, many of these laws have overly empowered States and have often been accompanied with limited oversight mechanisms. This has left citizens and the media exposed to the heavy handed abuses by the state.
For example, Uganda’s 2002 Anti-Terrorism Act gave security officers powers to intercept the communications of a person suspected of terrorist activities and to keep such persons under surveillance. The law further states that journalists who “promote terrorism” would be liable to capital punishment. In Ethiopia, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009 authorised interception of communication and this saw a large number of journalists, bloggers, and democracy activists being charged and sentenced under the law. In 2014, Cameroon enacted a broadly worded anti-terror law as part of its effort to counter the extremist group Boko Haram. The law however went on to be used by authorities against local journalists.
Further to this, a wave of laws related to citizens’ online actions emerged in the wake of the 2010 Arab Spring which Al Jazeera termed a wildfire that spread across the Arab world, spurring events that changed the region. Many of the events spurred an interest in the power of online platforms and social media, and States resorted to clamping down on these platforms by introducing a flurry of laws that shrunk online rights – and have continued to do so to date.
The causal effect of emerging online space
Indeed, as more users have come online in Africa, so have the cases for fake news, misinformation and disinformation risen. And in typical fashion, cyber policies introduced have preserved State interests ahead of citizens’ legitimate freedom of expression, access to information, and increasingly association and assembly online.
In 2018, Egypt passed the Supreme Council for Media Regulations which made anyone with more than 5,000 followers subject to prosecution for ‘posting fake news’. In Uganda, the 2018 social media tax introduced through the Excise Duty Amendment Act was announced as a means to “to cope with the consequences” of social media users’ “opinions, prejudices [and] insults”. Meanwhile, in Sierra Leone, a proposed cybercrime bill could turn a citizen’s smartphone into a crime scene, a situation described by activists as a “conduit for government suppression of digital rights and freedoms — especially in instances where the government falters.”
Other forms of addressing fake news include the demand for online users to register their online spaces with State bodies or face arrest or substantial financial penalties. In Tanzania, the Electronic and Postal Communications (EPOCA) (Online Content) Regulations 2018, calls for bloggers, owners of discussion forums, as well as radio and television streaming services to register with the communications regulator and to pay hefty licensing and annual fees. Similar requirements were introduced in Uganda in the same year. By collecting personal information in the absence of strong data privacy and intermediary liability frameworks, a culture of self-censorship is consequently encouraged.
Meanwhile, protest and elections have become periods and events when most action is taken against online users and service providers, ostensibly to clamp down on fake news and misinformation with threats, arrests and detentions being made, in addition to disruptions to online information and access mostly by repressive States. Further to this, the COVID19 pandemic has seen the introduction of additional cyber policies that have been abused and politicised by governments in attempts to mitigate misinformation.
Indeed, in the last six months the aforementioned actions have taken place in Chad, Guinea, Ethiopia, Senegal, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda where the combination of measures aimed at combating fake news on COVID19, protests, or elections have seen cyber policies used against citizens and media.
Despite many of these issues taking centre stage in current times, the principles of the Windhoek Declaration remain just as valid today as they were in 1991. The media’s role in shaping public opinion, as well as mediating the debate between the State and citizens has remained a constant. However, with the evolution and increased reliance and use of technology, poorly crafted cyber policies are becoming obstacles to the realisation of press freedom.