Lockdown on the spread of fake news

Our Government wants to stop the spread of COVID-19 (the virus) as well the spread of fake news as it relates to the virus.

As all South Africans are aware, our President declared a National State of Disaster (not to be confused with a National State of Emergency) in terms of the Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002 (the  Act) on 15 March 2020. What does this mean? In short, the Act allows for a disaster management framework to be developed that will focus on preventing or reducing the risk of disasters, mitigating the severity of the disasters as well as post-disaster recovery.

On 18 March 2020, the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs published regulations in terms of section 27(2) of the Act in the Government Gazette.  Note that there have been a few amendments published since then to, among other things, make provision for the lockdown. These regulations commenced on the day of publication. Among these, in terms of Regulation 11(5), it is now a criminal offence to deliberately spread fake news about the coronavirus.

What does this mean?

Should you publish a statement (whether it be on social media, WhatsApp or any other platform) with the intention to deceive anyone about the virus, the infection status of a person or measures taken by the government to address the virus, you can be held criminally liable and sentenced to pay a fine, spend up to six months in prison, or both.

The Right to Freedom of Expression

It should be noted that there needs to be a deliberate intention from the person spreading the misinformation, and that the information pertains only to the virus as mentioned above. The person must have the intention to deceive others with the fake news and, in turn, must be aware that the information is untrue. If this was not the case, the constitutionality of this provision would be questioned.

In this case, however, there is a justifiable limitation of the right to freedom of expression as contained in our Constitution. The spread of fake news about the virus could have devastating results.

What should you do?

When you receive the report, statement or piece of fake news, verify the source – is it reliable? Do the contents and the headline match? Can you verify who the publisher is? Make sure that the contents make sense and that they are in fact true before forwarding it on to anyone. Do not believe everything you read on social media platforms.

There is a lot more you can do and a quick online search on how to spot a fake news story can assist with some easy-to-follow steps to help you with this.  

Should you come across anything you believe is fake news, you are encouraged to report it to your local authorities.

For all of the regulations and guidelines relating to COVID-19, please visit: https://www.gov.za/coronavirus/guidelines

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Mark Christodoulou is an Associate in the Litigation and Dispute Resolution department and can be contacted on markc@vdt.co.za.

© VDT Attorneys

April 2, 2020
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