Regulating freedom of association amidst the COVID-19 response in South Africa

This article was originally published by APC member organisation CIPESA.

The global infodemic accelerated in part by the COVID-19 pandemic has raised important debates on how best to respond to the proliferation of false and misleading information online. The Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression addressed the critical issue of misinformation, noting that some actions undertaken by various governments to contain the spread of the coronavirus may fail to meet the test of legality, necessity and proportionality. The report cautioned against the introduction of vague and overly-broad laws to combat misinformation, proposing instead that governments provide reliable information to citizens.

Six months after a National State of Disaster was declared in South Africa, the government on September 16, 2020 eased the lockdown, removing “as many of the remaining restrictions on economic and social activity as it is reasonably safe to do.” One notable restriction still in place  is the criminalisation of the publication of “any statement through any medium including social media, with the intent to deceive,” pursuant to Regulation 11(5), under the Disaster Management Act, which was issued in March 2020. The offense is punishable with an unspecified fine, imprisonment of up to six months, or both.

The regulations were followed by directives from the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies compelling communications service providers to “remove COVID-19 related fake news from their platforms immediately after it is identified as such”. Within days of its passing, several individuals were arrested for spreading false information about COVID-19. In one case relating to a COVID-19 interview, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa fined two broadcasters South African Rand 10,000 (USD 660).

Whilst various activists initially raised their voices in support of   governments’ efforts to halt the spread of the disease, they also cautioned against overly restrictive conditions that limit human rights including  freedom of expression, access to information and public accountability.

Civil society reactions to the regulations on “fake news”

The debate about the impact of South Africa’s COVID-19 regulations on  free speech came into focus when a leading academic and member of the COVID-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee, Professor Glenda Gray made public comments about the effectiveness of the lockdown restrictions. The Minister of Health declared the academic’s views false and misleading. This prompted leading academics to conclude that “the government has repeatedly stressed that its primary goal in managing the pandemic is to save lives. But it needn’t kill speech to save lives.”

In April 2020, the Right2Know Campaign (R2K) wrote to the National Coronavirus Command Council regarding the “fake news” provisions of lockdown regulations. Whilst noting the potentially deleterious effects of false information, R2K made  proposals to amend the regulations to ensure the protection of the right to freedom of expression. Among the amendments proposed by R2K was the definition of “fake news”  to be clarified as the “dissemination of false information with the intention to deceive…”

Further, R2K noted that the “criminalisation of speech inevitably has a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression.” It proposed administrative penalties, rather than criminal sanctions, for disseminating false information. Another key proposal was that the government should make provision for relevant defences that an offender could rely on when faced with a charge of spreading false information.

Other critics, such as the Free Market Foundation (FMF), rejected the fake news regulations outright, calling on the government to rely on existing common law and constitutional provisions rather than attempting to regulate expression through the introduction of additional regulations. The FMF argued that, “there is simply too much information circulating in society for any centralised body to be entrusted with deciding its accuracy. Instead, we must rely on the decentralised gatekeeping network known as ‘the market’ to assist us in judging what is true and what is false.”

Meanwhile, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) stated in a statement in March that the regulations were narrowly defined, and proposed a high standard on the state to prove “intention to deceive.” The group  said the real challenge would be the government’s ability to implement and enforce the fake news regulations.

None of these proposals were taken into account and the current regulations remain in force under the extension of the state of national disaster, imposing undue restrictions on the right to freedom of expression.

Continue reading on the CIPESA website

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