Predators of press freedom have seized on the notion of “fake news” to muzzle the media on the pretext of fighting false information.
Nonetheless, many of them have taken recent statements by President Donald Trump as a means of justifying their repressive policies. This dangerous trend is a cause for concern to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). At a Washington news conference in February, Trump said: “We have to talk to find out what's going on, because the press, honestly, is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.”
By targeting journalists in this manner, the US president ended a longstanding American tradition of promoting freedom of expression and sent a powerful message to media censors. The Washington Post called it “a gift to tyrants everywhere”.
In January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan endorsed Trump’s latest allegations that the CNN television network was guilty of broadcasting “fake news” in its report on ties between the US president and Russia.
A warning to the media
The Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, appeared to have taken his cue from Trump when he said of journalists in February: "Donald Trump understands that they are an anarchic group.”
Two days earlier, his spokesman issued what he called a warning to foreign media outlets, threatening to “crush” those that endanger “peace and stability” and citing Trump’s treatment of the press as a justification for the warning.
“The so-called fight against fake news has become a propaganda tool for the predators of press freedom,” said RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire. “Of course, it is more necessary than ever for Internet users to disentangle fact from fiction in the flow of information. However, the fight against fake news should be conducted by promoting free and independent journalism as a source of reliable and high-quality information.”
Russia’s legal ban on the “dissemination of false information”
The Russian telecoms regulator is preparing a draft decree designed purely and simply to block all content that contains false information. Before Trump’s statement, Russia, ranked 148th in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, had already made it a requirement “not to disseminate false information” for bloggers to operate legally. The fight against “misleading information” has been a classic feature of post-Soviet Russia. The bill, imitated by several countries such as Uzbekistan, has enough leeway to allow for the broadest possible censorship.
Since July 2016, content aggregators are required to verify the veracity of reports that they publish if they do not come from media outlets registered in Russia, and could face harsh penalties.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has posted a new section on its official website dedicated to debunking fake anti-Russian news stories published by international news outlets.
The TV news network Russia Today, funded by the Russian government, went so far as to set up its own fact-checking service in March. Other Russian state media outlets, such as the news agency RIA Novosti, have also tried to take advantage of the ill-defined phenomenon of “fake news” to launch their own “Media Wars” sections, intended to highlight Western lies and attacks on the Russian media.
Punishing “fake news” denies journalists the right to make mistakes
In sub-Sahara Africa, the concept of fake news is often abused to put pressure on journalists. Some countries’ laws provide for severe penalties without taking account of the intentions of journalists, who sometimes simply make mistakes.
In any case, the penalty is disproportionate to the seriousness of the news report, even if it is wrong. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, insulting the head of state or the dissemination of false news reports may be enough for a journalist to be taken into custody, despite the fact that such offences were meant to be decriminalised under the 2004 press law.
Last month, six senior Ivorian journalists, including three newspaper publishers, were detained and questioned in Abidjan, accused of “publishing false news” about an army mutiny earlier in the month.
In Madagascar, a new communications code has been strongly criticised by journalists for referring to the criminal code in its rulings on press offences, which could lead to the criminalisation of the profession. It provides for heavy fines for infringements ranging from insults to defamation, and refers to the dissemination of “false news”, an imprecise offence which removes the right of journalists to make mistakes.
In Somalia, the Universal TV channel was suspended on 5 March for broadcasting false reports alleged to have threatened the stability and peace of the region after it referred to overseas trips by the president.
Information control is key for those who want to impose their version of events
The South African government plans to impose a system of online control of the media in order to meet the “challenge” of “fake news”. Growing hostility to the media probably has its roots in an unprecedented crisis in President Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress, whose leaders tend increasingly to silence dissident voices.
In Burundi, the control of news and information is a key issue for the ruling authorities. The government fosters the idea that the media are partisan and that there is an international plot against the country.
Since 2015, any report or statement is instantly interpreted as either for, or against, the government and the goal of the authorities is to impose its version of events as the only one.
In Egypt, journalists are frequently accused of disseminating false information whenever they criticise the government, or report on sensitive issues that upset it. This widespread practice leads to self-censorship among journalists in their coverage of events for fear of joining the long list of colleagues who have been prosecuted and imprisoned.
The investigative journalist Ismail Alexandrani, an expert on the Sinai Peninsula, has been held since his arrest at Hurghada airport on the Red Sea in November 2015 on charges of publishing false information and of membership of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Bahrain, the prominent citizen journalist and human rights campaigner, Nabeel Rajab, was accused last December of publishing false news about the kingdom of Bahrain in a cybercrime case. He could face up to two years’ imprisonment on this latest charge, which arises from interviews he gave in 2014 and 2015 to local and regional TV stations on human rights in Bahrain.
Fake news used by French politicians
The use of fake news to silence media critics is not the unique preserve of authoritarian or countries that are known for undermining press freedom. In France, the National Front, through its vice-president Florian Philippot, who has frequently categorised the work of journalists as “fake news”. During the programme “l’Emission Politique” on the TV station France 2 on 9 February, in which National Front leader Marine Le Pen took part, the party set up a “fake news alert team” which posted some 20 real-time alerts online “whenever members of the team believed that France 2 journalists put out fake news”.
Presidential candidate François Fillon earlier this month accused TV news channels of falsely reporting that his wife has committed suicide, before admitting no such reports had been broadcast.
In Italy, Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Five Star movement, accused Italian journalists of “manufacturing false news” designed to harm his party. He called for the creation of "a popular jury to determine the veracity of the news published”.
The FNSI journalists’ union said it amounted to the "lynching of all journalists". Five Star said journalists themselves were responsible for Italy’s low ranking in the World Press Freedom Index.
The United Nations concerned at growth of fake news
David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Organization of American States, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights issued a joint statement on 3 March expressing concern at the use of “fake news’ for government propaganda and to curb press freedom. “Criminal defamation laws are unduly restrictive and should be abolished,” the signatories said.
"State actors should, in accordance with their domestic and international legal obligations and their public duties, take care to ensure that they disseminate reliable and trustworthy information."