It has been interesting to observe how various countries are tackling the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. What appears to be a common thread among most countries is that of using whatever laws are available to enforce a “lockdown” to legislate that people in the country must stay at home unless they offer essential services.

It has been interesting to observe how various countries are tackling the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. What appears to be a common thread among most countries is that of using whatever laws are available to enforce a “lockdown” to legislate that people in the country must stay at home unless they offer essential services.

In most countries, to enforce a “lockdown” requires the government to legislate a “State of Disaster”, “State of Emergency”, or something similar that their laws allow them to. With such laws comes not only the restriction of movement (to enforce a lockdown) but as we are witnessing, governments are also able to pass other laws quickly in the “spirit” of fighting the coronavirus.

The idea of a lockdown to stop the spread of a contagious disease is not new, especially in Africa. In 2015 Sierra Leone's government imposed a 3-day lockdown forcing people to stay at home as they were trying to stop the spread of the deadly Ebola disease. 📷 A soldier standing in the middle of the deserted streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone (2015)

One of the curious laws being passed by some countries is that of making it a criminal offense to spread “fake news” (i.e. misinformation, disinformation, and a new one for me: mal-information) during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although on the surface of it this can be perceived to have been legislated for the good of the nation, it can be a slippery slope that can be abused to suppress freedom of speech and expression.

Allow me to elaborate.

In declaring South Africa’s State of Disaster by amending the Disaster Management Act, it was also legislated that anyone found to be spreading “fake news” about COVID-19 and the government’s efforts around COVID-19 could be fined or sentenced to jail for 6 months. Now, I am relatively ok with this as the aim is to help spread the correct information about the virus (I do have some reservations but that’s a topic for another day).

A section of South Africa's Disaster Management Act giving details on fake news offences. It came into effect on 26 March 2020.

However, things start getting interesting when you start looking at the messaging being sent out publicly after that once the amendments became law. Take this statement posted on Facebook by South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Pinky Kekana:

The Directions came into effect on 26 March 2020 and will remain in effect for the duration of COVD-19 disaster period.With the above mentioned in mind, it is also important for you to know the different types of #FakeNews out there. They are as follows;
1.Disinformation: Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country for the purposes to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.
2. Misinformation: Information that is false but not created to cause harm or misleading readers.
3. Mal-Information: Deliberate publication of private information for personal or private interest, as well as the deliberate manipulation of genuine content.

Of particular interest is the definition of “Mal-Information.” Given this definition, does it mean investigative journalism is considered fake news?After all, investigative journalism is the publication of private information for the public interest, but whether the motive public, personal or private interest is open to interpretation depending on who is in charge of deciding.

Do you see the dilemma now and how easily this could all be used to clamp down on free speech and, dare I say it, criticism?

Interestingly, beyond the Deputy Minister’s social media statements about this and some posters being shared on social media regarding this, these descriptions as mentioned by the Deputy Minister don’t appear in the Disaster Management Act amendments of any other legal document. Despite that, it is still a bit of a concern that this is the “line of thinking” that is being pursued…“in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”

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