Cybersecurity and data protection law is the panacea to fight false information
Christopher Makaza Herald Correspondent
As the country approaches the harmonized general elections of 2023, major events will occur and the main sources of information for many Zimbabweans will be social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter among others.
Fake news providers will also be on the rise as they aim to discredit political rivals. By definition, fake news is false or misleading information presented as news. Fake news is often intended to damage the reputation of a person or entity and is detrimental to our community as it makes the world less informed and erodes trust.
The freedom to communicate and express opinions is necessary to effectively demand and enforce government obligations and accountability. However, spreading fake news is not the freedom the country needs.
A number of faked images and documents, especially of opposition political parties and government critics, usually gain credibility after being picked up as news by the mainstream media. The fake news from the opposition elements and critics mainly aims to stir up people’s emotions to rise up against the government.
Social media in Zimbabwe is still awash with false allegations of abductions, torture and assaults by the CCC against Zanu PF officials. The opposition political party is trying to publicly prove that the 2023 elections would not be free and fair to attract the attention of the international community.
In January 2020, Acting CCC Spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere, Vice President Job Sikhala and activist Hopewell Chin’ono were arrested for spreading false news on social media that a police officer had killed a child strapped to his mother’s back as he evacuated people from an unnamed location. hiking spot along Sam Nujoma street in the avenues district of Harare.
Several false death reports of ministers and senior ZANU PF officials have been published and circulated on social media, causing anxiety among family members.
In January 2021, a Beitbridge couple were arrested for allegedly messaging a WhatsApp group claiming that President Mnangagwa had succumbed to Covid-19. Following Moreblessing Ali’s death, Sikhala posted images of two corpses by a river in South Africa, claiming it was in Zimbabwe and one of the corpses was Ali’s.
There is an urgent need for the government to enact the Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill. The proposed law aims to punish those who abuse social media, the internet and communication networks and to make digital financial systems and growing e-commerce more efficient and better protected. The bill has passed through Parliament and is now awaiting the President’s assent to become law.
The government and an ICT expert hailed the passing of the bill, saying it will go a long way in tackling cybercrime. However, media rights groups such as the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) have called on regional governments to refrain from criminalizing fake news, saying it hinders freedom of expression.
During a Twitter discussion about the impact of the criminalization of fake news on constitutional rights on October 6, 2022, Misa noted that the criminalization of fake news could revive criminal defamation law which has since been banned.
MISA observed that criminalizing the publication of lies promotes self-censorship and violates the fundamental rights of citizens, adding that as a result, ordinary people are unable to fully exercise their digital rights.
MISA’s sentiments are misplaced given that the spread of fake news appears to be on the rise and will negatively impact the 2023 general election with the opposition spreading fake news to sway people’s vote and cause unrest. MISA fights from the corner of opposition political parties, shielding social media culprits who happen to be opposition elements.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) has been the main victim of the spread of fake news and in most cases is working overtime to correct misinformation peddled by opposition elements via social media on the processes electoral officials and ZEC staff.
Zimbabwe is not the first African country to try to solve the problem of fake news. In 2018, Kenya passed the Computer Misuse and Cybercrime Act which criminalizes social media abuse and cyberbullying. It was the latest in East Africa to punish the spread of “false news” and impose a long prison sentence on offenders.
He proposed a fine of US$50,000 (£37,000) and/or up to two years in prison for posting “false” information. Similar measures to curb the spread of fake news have also been introduced in Tanzania and Uganda.