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Fake News: Is Govt ready to confront the monster?

A crucial lesson we have learnt from the coronavirus pandemic is that disinformation travels faster than any virus.

Some have called it “infordemic”

False and unreliable information about Covid-19 is spreading across social media platforms like a plague.

Some commentators even refer to the avalanche of misinformation as a “disinfodemic”.

False data, fake remedies and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus have gained traction on cyberspace causing confusion and distrust, and hampering containment efforts.

Illustratively, top trending videos about Covid-19 on popular video-sharing platform, YouTube, are largely false conspiracy theories falsely claiming the origins of the contagion.

While this does not only apply to COVID-19 – it also affects every corner of the social and economic strata.

And the questions that remain to be answered is, does the Cybersecurity and Data Protection Bill help to counter deep fakes.

Misinformation legislation has never been more important, in an era where developed countries are already grappling with the so-called “deep fakes”.

Last year, Cabinet approved the draft Cybersecurity and Data Protection Bill, amid much fanfare only for the excitement to suffer an ominous humdrum death.

The Bill’s key features included a provision to penalise people for generating and distributing “data concerning an identifiable person knowing it to be false and intending to cause psychological or economic” harm.

And a recent interview with Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Monica Mutsvangwa was telling on how the government is committed in fighting fakes news.

She said although they have not yet set in place tools to identify, investigate and trace fake news to its originator, she remained adamant that it was an offence to generate fake news.

“Government has enacted the Cybersecurity and Data Protection Bill, as a long term way to protect the nation against the damage caused by fake news. The broadcasting and distribution of information knowing it to be false and intending to cause psychological or economic harm to someone is criminalized under this Bill,” said the information tsar.

She added that “Government has now addressed this and the spreading fake news on social media and mainstream media about COVID19) has been categorised as a Level 14 offence, the highest in the country and people convicted of the crime face up to 20 years in jail”

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated why our cyber laws need an immediate rejig.

The government needs to make sure that the Cybersecurity and Data Protection Bill made into law as soon as yesterday.

Presently, our cyber legislation is old at best and cannot be used to address present-day problems given how much technology has moved since the laws were promulgated.

This could be why a number of governments resort to the option of shutting down the internet when confronted with “deep-fakes”.

But internet shutdowns come with unintended consequences that inconvenience law-abiding citizens.

They only serve to provide fodder for critics of governments.

Experts aver that there is a need for relevant laws and institutions that come with sufficient sanctions for delinquents.

Willam Sanudi, a cybersecurity expert said Zimbabwe needed laws and policies that nurture responsible use of the cyberspace, which promotes development.

“Parliament needs to take the lead in coming up with laws and policies that will give us our own Zimbabwean Steve Jobs,” he said.

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Daniel Chigundu

Daniel Chigundu is the news editor for OpenParlyZW an online platform that covers Parliament of Zimbabwe activities using social media (Twitter and Facebook). He is currently the secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Parliamentary Journalists Forum and a board member of Digital Communication Network.

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