South Africa enacts regulations criminalizing ‘disinformation’ on coronavirus outbreak

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists  (CPJ) has expressed concern over newly passed regulations in South Africa that criminalize “disinformation” about the COVID-19 pandemic. CPJ says South Africa’s action  could potentially prompt other countries in Africa to adopt more repressive rules and censorship against the press.

CPJ’s statement follows the South African government’s decision on Wednesday March 18 to enact new regulations, which CPJ says criminalizes “statements intended to deceive any person about COVID-19 or the government’s response to the pandemic.” The said regulations were published in the Government Gazette under the 2002 Disaster Management Act and carry penalties including fines, imprisonment, or both.

The volume of air traffic connections between each African country and Chinese regions heavily impacted by the virus.

CPJ Africa Program Coordinator,  Angela Quintal said today that “the COVID-19 pandemic must be taken seriously, but passing laws that emphasize criminalizing disinformation over educating the public and encouraging fact-checking present a slippery slope and send the wrong message to other countries that may be less measured in drafting such laws.”  CPJ says “South Africa’s post-apartheid commitment not to criminalize information has been a beacon for press freedom across Africa, but these new regulations have the potential to dim that light, opening up the possibility of abuse and limitations on vital information and facts.”

South African media lawyer, Dario Milo says while the new regulations allow for prosecution only of malicious falsehoods about COVID-19, criminalizing disinformation was generally undesirable. The regulation, however, would likely be legally defensible, Milo said.

In a joint statement on March 19, David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur for the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and his counterparts in the OSCE and IACHR, said they shared the concern that false information about the pandemic could lead to health concerns, panic, and disorder. However, they stated that it was essential that governments should first address disinformation by themselves providing reliable information.

Resorting to other measures, such as censorship, could result in limiting access to important information for public health and should only be undertaken where they met the standards of necessity and proportionality, they said. “Any attempts to criminalize information relating to the pandemic may create distrust in institutional information, delay access to reliable information and have a chilling effect on freedom of expression,” the statement said.

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