BY FRED MUWEMA
KAMPALA – These days, our news ecosystem is playing host to an amplified form of harmful bliss called “Fake News” which is apparently as old as journalism itself. Fake news is bliss because more people are adept to consume and pleasure in it as it feeds their human sensuality which sometimes presents as momentary urges to give or receive a rose or rogue tinted version of a story.
Many people are innocent consumers of fake news which is why it spreads faster than real news. Research has shown that the truth takes approximately six times longer than fake news to reach people thereby underlining the fatal attractiveness of fake news.
It is difficult to find any major story or event that can resist the drive or manipulation of a lethal dose of false information or news even when there is no clear legal definition in Uganda, of what fake news is or is not. I believe this obtains courtesy of an often subjective test of some fake news which has also stained supposedly official news conveyed through traditional media channels.
The Iraq war in 2003 which was mounted and informed by a frenzy of misinformed official media which escorted a military expedition searching for non-existent weapons of mass destruction, ended up bringing Iraq to the brink of destruction. It was a costly drama picking up bills in the region of USD 2 trillion and it took the lives of more than 180,000 combatant and non-combatants and it is still counting. But all this death and misery at the hands of politically motived fake news has not stopped humanity’s affinity for more and more fake news. This is a typical example of a rouge tinted version of a story that should never have been.
We should therefore not blame some enthusiastic plaudits when they look to President Donald Trump who popularized the term fake news during the 2016 US Presidential elections in defining fake news as any unfavourable coverage by the media. Many leaders and governments around the world from Brazil to Indonesia and Germany to Thailand, have picked the cue and gone further to line themselves with some anti-fake news legislations laced with heavy fines and penalties. The penalties of up to 50 million Euros on platform owners like Facebook and Twitter who are secondary peddlers of fake news, may reduce the mundane behaviour but no one can predict to what extent. What I believe however is that the success of any anti-fake news laws will be measured against the willingness of any Government to be truthful and accountable to its people who may be expected to reciprocate better by observing the law. After all, it is said that obeying the law starts from the top.
In most jurisdictions in the world, fake news is not out-rightly illegal or criminal. This is largely because the global crackdown on fake news raises censorship concerns and is viewed as an affront to the freedom of expression. It is the reason social media giants like Facebook which are populated with many gardens of fake news, do not even have a mention of the word fake news in their statement of rights and responsibilities for users. This is the thinking which influenced the Supreme Court of Uganda to end the life of S.50 of our Penal Code Act in the landmark case of Onyango Obbo and Andrew Mwenda Versus Attorney General (2002) which used to criminalize the publication of false news, statements, rumours or reports likely to cause fear or alarm to the public or distort peace. Ever since false news (which is practically the same as fake news) was orphaned in Uganda, it has remained a weak legal caricature under the concept of electronic fraud which is performed through computer networks pursuant to the Computer Misuse Act 2011.
The recent saga of the widely condemned torture and arrest of Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, Hon. Francis Zaake, Hon. Kasiano Wadri, Hon. Paul Mwiru and others served up a common but prosaic style of fake news on both sides which reminded us that fake news is both harmful and blissful. In my view Bobi Wine‘s pain and suffering were not soothed by the false declaration on Facebook by one of his brothers that ”Bobi died, they are hiding the body” or when we woke up to the chilling news that one of his kidneys had shut down. We cannot comment on the merits of the alleged escape of a battered Hon. Francis Zaake from Police custody since the matter is in Court, but as night follows day, we shall soon know whether this was fake news or not. I am no security expert but I want to believe that this fake news and propaganda could have inflamed an already inflamed situation in the country and abroad.
At the same time, the Uganda Police act of parading some non-descript guns claiming that they were recovered from Bobi Wine’s hotel room in Arua and the act of later dropping the case without convincing reasons, could have served to increase the agitation and annoyance of the public. Keen observers will not be lost on the fact that previous illegal possession of gun charges against opposition politicians like Winnie Byanyima in 2001 and Rtd. Col. Kiiza Besigye in 2005 suffered the same fate. These together with the recent case of Bobi Wine have now taken their place as museum pieces of fake news. The denial and eventual acceptance of the Police arrest and detention of Eddie Mutwe, Bobi Wine’s bodyguard can make a late but permanent entry to the museum as well.
All fake news, whether from Government or private organisations and individuals promotes a sub-culture of fake news. Rather than fear the fake news, we must fear ourselves instead because without us, there will be no one to originate, read, distribute, react to or suffer the effects of the fake news. It is not enough to acquire awareness or knowledge about fake news for the sake of it. I agree with the celebrated author Yuval Noah Harari when he writes in his book Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow that “knowledge which does not change behaviour is useless.”
Let us change our behaviour by not taking to blaming the fake news, but ourselves. Let us (which includes Governments and institutions) self-regulate against the fake news whenever we can identify it because we have a choice in this matter. We cannot wait for Government, or any other entity to assure our protection from the fake news when there is an environment that ensures the continued creation and consumption of fake news. The vicious cycle of fake news starts and ends with each of us, whoever or wherever we may be.
Mr. Fred Muwema is a reknown Kampala based lawyer and Managing Partner, Muwema & Co. Advocates