Botswana this week joined the growing number of regional and international countries battling an epidemic of COVID-19 fake news, a virus threat multiplier so big it is now being referred to as a disinfodemic.For a long-time dismissed as hoax sites pushing fringe theories, their fake news about COVID-19 in Botswana were last week spreading faster than the coronavirus, disrupting the official narrative and spreading disinformation about the pandemic in the country.
While thousands of Batswana remained cooped up in their homes under strict lockdown laws, a range of bogus COVID-19 stories were surging through the internet threatening to undermine the government attempt to fight the virus.Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) spokesperson Justice Motlhabane and two of his party colleagues were this week charged under “publishing statements with intention to deceive persons about COVID – 19 infection.” The trio had published a number of Facebook conspiracy theories suggesting that President Mokgweetsi Masisi was using the COVID-19 state of emergency as a stalking horse to attack and destroy his opponents. In another post, the trio falsely claimed that President Masisi had paid ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) MPs P12 million each to vote through his state of emergency motion.Botswana became the second country in the region after South Africa, and one of more than a dozen in the world to resort to the court in a bid to clamp down on the COVID-19 disinfodemic.
At the time of going to press, South Africa had arrested eight people for disseminating false information about the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the country’s Police Minister Bheki Cele.While both Botswana and South Africa are caught up in a COVID-19 disinfodemic, what is different about the Botswana crisis is the political environment in which it is playing out. The Botswana disinfodemic is riding on the pre-existing dynamics of the online political disinformation ecosystem, amplifying rumours, misinformation, conspiracies, and outright lies.For a government seeking to build trust and communicate clearly, it’s a nightmare. For those looking to sow chaos and doubt, it’s an opportunity.
The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) which was in a loose alliance with the BPF in the run up to the 2019 general elections issued a statement this week stating that it “wishes to express its serious concern and apprehension with regard to increasing reports of fellow citizens who have been arrested and detained by the Police for alleged inappropriate posts in the social media. These posts have been deemed to be criminal behaviour by the government allegedly because they are offensive to the government and leadership of this country. Our concerns are magnified by the fact that these arrests come close on the heels of the adoption by the ruling party dominated parliament of a 6 months state of emergency and the accompanying regulations. The state of emergency and its regulations were forced through parliament by the ruling party using its numerical strength, totally disregarding the position of the entire opposition that current statutes on public health and the penal code accorded the state enough legal instruments with which to combat Covid-19. The opposition, in a spirit of compromise even offered to accept the state of emergency if the ruling party were to accept a period of 28 days or 3 months.
It is now becoming clear that the government forced through the state of emergency with an ulterior motive of using it to suppress any dissent against its policies by arresting commentators on social media and subjecting them to a humiliating experience of being restrained with leg irons in public view. “The UDC is however unlikely to find support among local and international media freedom advocacy groups, most of which are worried that the continued spread of fake news raised the spectre of official public health guidance aimed at curbing COVID-19 falling on deaf ears, with possibly fatal consequences.
Renowned freedom of expression champion and Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO, Professor Guy Berger has expressed concern that these COVID-19 fake news is “putting lives at risk.”In an interview with UN News, he explained that falsehoods related to all aspects of COVID-19, have become commonplace.“There seems to be barely an area left untouched by disinformation in relation to the COVID-19 crisis, ranging from the origin of the coronavirus, through to unproven prevention and ‘cures’, and encompassing responses by governments, companies, celebrities and others.”He added that “in a time of high fears, uncertainties and unknowns, there is fertile ground for fabrications to flourish and grow.
The big risk is that any single falsehood that gains traction can negate the significance of a body of true facts.“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.”Well before the outbreak of the virus, UNESCO was issuing warnings of the impact that political, technological, economic, and social transformation has had on how we exchange information in recent years, referring to the “contamination” caused by some orchestrated misinformation campaigns, which pose a threat to fact-based journalism and, particularly during the current pandemic, people’s lives.The UNESCO position is shared by the Botswana Editors Forum.
Concerned about the threat fake news and conspiracy theories posed to Botswana’s fight against coronavirus, local editors: Spencer Mogapi of The Telegraph, Outsa Mokone Sunday Standard, Aubrey Lute- The Weekend Post, Emang Bokhutlo- The Voice Newspaper, Rorisang Mogojwe- Gabz Fm and Sakaeyo Jane- Broadcasting Services last months adopted a COVID-19 media protocol aimed at among other things fighting fake news.The Botswana Editors Forum also “agreed to compile a list of media houses that have made a commitment to adhere to the COVID 19 reporting protocol in order to assist the public with a guideline of where to find credible and reliable news.”This position is further reiterated by the World Editors Forum (WEF). In an Op-Ed by WEF President Warren Fernandez under the headline” Credible media vital in fight against COVID-19 and fake news epidemic” endorsed by the WEF board of directors, Fernandez warns of wrenching changes to come and urges urgent action to minimise damage to the media, and democracy.“Amid the welter of information swirling about on social media, professional newsrooms which have long invested in building expertise, have been meeting the public’s hunger for objective reporting, based on journalists speaking to informed sources, providing context and perspective, drawing on historical knowledge and institutional memory.
These have also helped inoculate communities against that other virus that is on the rampage – fake news – which is sowing anxiety and confusion, as well as undermining the public’s trust in the reliability of information they receive at this critical time…….. This has led the World Health Organisation to warn of a coming “infodemic,” with misinformation spreading and undermining public trust at a crucial time.”In a press statement, the UDC however said the clampdown against COVID-19 fake news was, “a choreographed intention of the ruling party to trample upon constitutional rights and to instil fear in members of the public who are critical of the government. The UDC wishes to remind the government to use the state of public emergency for the sole purpose of reinforcing efforts to combat Covid-19 and not to ruthlessly stifle dissent. The right to free speech is not only entrenched in the Constitution of this country, but is also a globally recognised human right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As a consequence, we wish to alert the diplomatic community to take note of these recent acts by the government which violate the civic and political rights of citizens of this country.”