Propagating fake news should be punishable

by Anesu Pedzisayi

The world has been battling with the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) that has sadly resulted in the death of more than 8000 people, across the globe. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared coronavirus a global emergency, as the virus was rapidly spreading outside China. Since then, various bodies and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has pledged US$1 trillion, to assist those affected, especially developing countries. The World Bank committed to provide US$12 billion to developing countries to mitigate the impact of the outbreak.

Back home, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, declared the coronavirus pandemic a National Disaster, to allow Government to mobilise resources and take necessary measures in dealing with the pandemic. Resultantly, the President announced several measures that Government has put in place to reduce the likelihood of infections and the spread of the disease. Some of the measures include suspending gatherings of more than 100 people, weddings, church gatherings, postponing the planned national Independence celebrations, the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) and pending international sporting fixtures.

This is one grave matter that the world is taking seriously as some countries have declared lockdowns resulting in self-isolation, business, colleges and schools closing and sporting events and public gathering being postponed.

Fortunately, Zimbabwe has so far not recorded any positive coronavirus case, with WHO noting that the country had adequate contingent measures to prevent and contain an outbreak of the virus. However, what is disheartening are some of the negative sentiments and utterances that emanate from Government critics who thrive on pessimism. It is scandalous how some Zimbabweans sometimes wish ill over their country, so much so that the negativity attracts equally negative ambiance towards the country.

A recent example is when there were falsehoods being circulated on social media that a student from the University of Zimbabwe had tested positive of the coronavirus. Relatedly, there were rumours that Zimbabwe had recorded its first case of the virus, to which South Africa’s television station, ENCA, carried the same unconfirmed report. This only served to undermine Government and the efforts being made to give credible and reliable information to the public.

Some Zimbabweans desperately want the country to record Covid-19 cases so as to prove the Zanu PF government is not prepared for the virus as they have alleging on social media. Resultantly fakes corona virus cases are being manufactured on computer screens to achieve self-fulfilling prophesises.

From the foregoing, the need for the country to have laws that punish individuals who propagate fake news on social media platforms should be expedited, and it is encouraging to know that Government, through the Cyber Crimes, Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill would be addressing that. The Bill contains provisions that would penalise unruly elements that make fake posts concerning Zimbabwe, on social media. Fake news is considered a threat to national security as it causes alarm and despondency. People tend to panic, as well as engage in risky behaviour, if they are ill-informed and fed falsehoods. 

Zimbabwe’s position against fake news and threats to national security is also shared by other countries such as the United Kingdom (UK). On 26 February 2020, MDC UK-based activist, Martin William Chinyanga, was arrested by the UK anti-terror Police on terrorism charges after he released a video on Facebook in December 2019, encouraging Zimbabweans to burn down service stations and businesses, in protest against Government.

Relatedly, other developed countries have laws against fake news. In 2019, Singapore, passed The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which requires online platforms, including social networking, search engines and news aggregation services, to issue corrections or remove content that government deemed false. Individuals found guilty of violating the law, both inside and outside the country, could face fines of up to $60 000 or prison terms of up to 10 years.

In 2018, eight countries, notably, UK, France, Ireland, Belgium, Argentina, Canada, Brazil and Singapore, met under The International Grand Committee on Disinformation and False News, to discuss the spread of disinformation and the threat of fake news and counter-strategies thereof.

More recently in Kenya, a 23-year-old man was arrested and charged with publishing false information with the intent to cause panic, after allegedly spreading disinformation about the coronavirus. The corona virus is no laughing matter and Zimbabweans should be cautioned for spreading falsehoods on social media just for the funny of it as they have been doing on other weighty issues in the country.

Regardless of laws, Zimbabweans should generally develop a culture of speaking positively on their country, offer constructive criticism and demand answers from respective authorities when in doubt as opposed to peddling lies. By extension a person’s love for their country is also easily transferable across borders, and can work towards attracting tourists. An increase in tourist arrivals would also translate to an increase in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Tourism is regarded as a potentially capable way for economic development, as well as a significant source of economic growth.

Fake news also works against national peace and unity, as it is divisive. Citizens are made to turn against each other and a lot of energy is channelled towards redressing falsehoods, instead of pushing the country forward. Also, when it matters the most, citizens may end up ignoring certain information, dismissing it as false. It is important that people verify information before they take part in peddling false information.

Unity of purpose is important. As President Mnangagwa rightfully said, Zimbabweans should join hands with the rest of the world and tackle the coronavirus pandemic, collectively. In the same manner, Zimbabweans should reprimand those who propagate fake news, and encourage one other to portray Zimbabwe positively.