ISS TODAY OP-ED
Weaponisation of fake news across Africa puts journalism on trial, truth on road to ruin
Powerful elites are using the fake news narrative to target journalists and evade accountability.
The world of journalism has been somewhat emboldened since 7 June when judges in a South African high court threw out a private prosecution brought by the country’s former president Jacob Zuma. His target was journalist Karyn Maughan, whom the court heard he’d developed an ‘extraordinary animosity’ towards.
Read more in Daily Maverick: SLAPP down — Jacob Zuma fails in attempted private prosecution of Billy Downer and Karyn Maughan
Maughan’s reporting included references to documents about Zuma’s health that were already on public record as part of the twists and turns surrounding his medical parole. In response, the court heard that Maughan was the victim of a systematic campaign to silence her, including intimidation and physical threats waged both on- and offline.
Intimidation of journalists persists across Africa. Since the start of this year and against a backdrop of civil war and a slow political transition, three journalists have been killed in Cameroon. Despite a large media presence, Cameroon is one of the most dangerous environments for journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders. In Senegal, journalists have faced arbitrary arrest, and in many settings including Congo the media is controlled by powerful governing elites.
South Africa has a reputation for taking its journalism seriously, considering it an important pillar of democracy. The South African National Editors’ Forum describes the case against Maughan as a Slapp case — a strategic lawsuit against public participation — and part of a wider strategy by Zuma to limit his own time in prison.
The country has a proud history of impact journalism — article 16A of its Constitution makes clear that the media is intrinsic to a functioning democracy. While its high court rejected what many considered crude bullying tactics, however, across much of Africa such robust legal endorsement is largely absent or ignored.
Laws and regulations in other parts of the continent, including the Southern African Development Community region, that limit the freedom of the press in the digital age signal a disturbing trend. They open up a new front in curtailing press freedom in the name of national security. Amnesty International recently described what it calls a ‘worrying’ trend of attacks on journalists in East and Southern Africa.
In today’s information environment, both digital and analogue, journalists risk being personally attacked or their stories dismissed as simply ‘fake news’. This means powerful elites can operate without accountability.
Weaponisation of fake news
A recent investigation by CBS News into the dubious operations and financing of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group in the Central African Republic is a case in point. Painstakingly gathered shipping records, business documents, and import and export permits formed the backbone of the CBS investigation.
The report claims that Wagner exploits African resources to fund wars, focusing on illicit timber sales. In response to the report, CAR officials gazetted a statement that made the front pages of pro-government media, claiming it was being attacked by ‘fake news’. It’s worth noting that the founder of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is the mastermind behind a sleek propaganda machine that uses action films, cartoons and documentaries to support a pro-Russia narrative. Many of these are relayed to the countries where the Wagner Group is present.
The CAR’s strategy to deny, deflect and defame comes straight out of the playbook of counter-information practitioners. It also bats away any semblance of accountability for allegations that may have serious geopolitical ramifications.
Unpicking what’s fake and what’s not has spawned a growth industry of fact-checkers such as Africa Check and FactCheckHub. Furthermore, with the rapid expansion of social media in Africa, the prospect of inauthentic narratives — ‘fake news’ polluting the information environment and triggering real-world consequences — is significant. Xenophobic narratives directed at South Africa’s social media audiences are an example.
“We are seeing a double-sided problem,” says Herman Wasserman, Professor of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch. “On the one hand, disinformation and genuine inauthentic news need to be corrected. But the fake news narrative is being weaponised by government actors to provide a smoke screen or alibi for failing to be held accountable.”
That false narratives can spread online rapidly is partly the result of legacy (traditional) media’s inability to keep pace with news online and correctly source such claims. A fall in advertising revenue is partly to blame, say many newsroom insiders, as it reduces the number of experienced staff able to check facts and corroborate sources.
But there is also a despondency among professionals who often struggle to make a living as journalists working in Africa. This is one of the reasons foreign donors are hardwiring journalism training into their governance programmes, hammering home the codes of practice and ethics that underpin the journalism profession worldwide.
While Reporters Without Borders in its 2022 report says its media landscape has opened up slightly in countries like Angola and Zimbabwe, “in most cases, the repression of dissident journalists persists”. It points out that new laws criminalising online journalism have “dealt a blow to the right to information. At the same time, the spread of rumours, propaganda, and disinformation has contributed to the undermining of journalism and access to quality information”.
The report signals an urgency for professional journalism to reclaim its position as a custodian of truth. Newsrooms must resist the urge to chase audiences or clickbait and consider new funding models. They must also censure professional journalists who cave in to the offer of “brown envelopes” or sell their influence and online networks to political actors, rather than hold power to account. While the economics of the traditional news business makes for dismal reading, where journalism is robust and reasonably funded it should be showcased.
South African journalism could be a champion for the rest of Africa. Exchange programmes and mentorship schemes can help to share best practice. But ultimately journalism in Africa needs more funds at scale to thrive and support a new generation of professional reporters and investigators tasked with bearing witness and holding powerful elites to account. DM
Karen Allen, Consultant, ISS Pretoria.
First published by ISS Today.