The Sunday Mail
Parliament Lincoln Towindo
A crucial lesson we have learnt from the coronavirus pandemic is that disinformation travels faster than any virus.
A Harare man, Lovemore Zvokusekwa, awaits his fate after falling foul of new regulation criminalising intentional publication of false news about any public officer involved with enforcing or implementing the national lockdown. It is alleged that Zvokusekwa disseminated a fake Press statement purporting that President Mnangagwa had extended the national lockdown by an additional two weeks. The statement in question spread like wildfire across social media — feeding off people’s fears, prejudices and ignorance.
It led to mass anxiety and panic.
False and unreliable information about Covid-19 is spreading across social media platforms like a plague. Some commentators even refer to the avalanche of misinformation as a “disinfodemic”.
False data, fake remedies and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus have gained traction on the cyberspace causing confusion and distrust, and hampering containment efforts.
Illustratively, top trending videos about Covid-19 on popular video sharing platform, YouTube, are largely false conspiracy theories falsely claiming the origins of the contagion.
A study by the United Kingdom’s media watchdog Ofcom, published recently, shows that nearly half of all adults in the country have been exposed to fake online news or misleading information about the virus.
Guy Berger, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) director for policies and strategies regarding communication and information, recently observed that: “There seems to be barely an area left untouched by disinformation in relation to the Covid-19 crisis. In a time of high fears, uncertainties and unknowns, there is fertile ground for fabrications to flourish and grow.
“When disinformation is repeated and amplified, including by influential people, the grave danger is that information which is based on truth, ends up having only marginal impact.”
False information has not only served to disrupt governments’ efforts to curtail spread of the pandemic, but is also putting lives at risk with many people being prompted to try unproven remedies in the vain hope of “curing” themselves. In response to the “disinfodemic” most governments are introducing stringent “fake news” laws to arrest its spread and sanction perpetrators.
In Zimbabwe, Statutory Instrument 83 of 2020, Public Health (Covid-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment) Regulations, promulgated last month, states that: “For the avoidance of doubt any person who publishes or communicates false news about any public officer involved with enforcing or implementing the national lockdown in his or her capacity as such, or about any private individual that has the effect of prejudicing the State’s enforcement of the national lockdown, shall be liable for prosecution under Section 31 of the Criminal Law Code and liable to the penalty there provided, that is to say a fine up to or exceeding level fourteen or imprisonment for a period not exceeding 20 years or both.”
Promulgation of the regulations illustrates Government’s growing concern at the proliferation of fake news during the pandemic and how it could hamper efforts to contain the pandemic. Comparatively, in South Africa, publishing false news about Covid-19 and government’s efforts to fight the disease now comes with a prison sentence of up to six months or a fine.
Further afield, Singapore legislated the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofmas), which imposes maximum penalties of 10 years’ imprisonment or US$500 000 fine for publishing fake news.
Here we see two different approaches in addressing what is generally a similar problem.
In Singapore’s case, authorities have opted for a wholesome approach, which addresses fake news in its entirety. In Zimbabwe and South Africa’s case, authorities have opted for a short-term approach of using subsidiary legislation to address fake news as it relates to Covid-19, specifically.
This approach will not, however, address the problems associated with spreading fake news post-Covid-19.
Further, here in Zimbabwe these regulations can also be challenged before the courts, which can strike them down.
They are also yet to go through parliamentary scrutiny. Experience has taught us that the fake news pandemic is real and will remain with us long after the coronavirus is gone, hence the need for a more holistic approach to the problem.
Misinformation legislation has never been more important, in an era where developed countries are already grappling with the so-called “deep-fakes”.
Last year, Cabinet approved the draft Cybercrime and Cyber Security Bill, amid much fanfare only for the excitement to suffer an ominous humdrum death.
The Bill’s key features included a provision to penalise people for generating and distributing “data concerning an identifiable person knowing it to be false and intending to cause psychological or economic” harm.
The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated why our cyber laws need an immediate rejig. Government cannot continue to depend on subsidiary legislation in such cases. It needs to make sure that the Cybercrime and Cyber Security Bill is before Parliament as soon as yesterday. Currently, our cyber legislation is archaic at best and cannot be used to address present day problems given how much technology has moved since the laws were promulgated.
This could be why a number of governments resort to the option of shutting down the internet when confronted with “deep-fakes”.
But internet shutdowns come with unintended consequences that inconvenience law-abiding citizens.
They only serve to provide fodder for critics of governments. What we need are relevant laws and institutions that come with sufficient sanctions for delinquents.
Zimbabwe needs laws and policies that nurture responsible use of the cyberspace, which promotes development. Parliament needs to take the lead in coming up with laws and policies that will give us our own Zimbabwean Steve Jobs.