After 2016 election, US poised to fight fake news — in Kenya

This Tweet from the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi from Aug. 14, 2017, calls out a alleged embassy document as being fake news. (AP)
Updated 19 March 2018
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After 2016 election, US poised to fight fake news — in Kenya

NAIROBI: Just ahead of Kenya’s disputed 2017 election, video clips started spreading on social media of a slick-looking CNN broadcast asserting that President Uhuru Kenyatta had pulled far ahead in the polls. But the CNN broadcast was fake, splicing together real coverage from CNN Philippines with other footage with the network’s iconic red logo superimposed in the corner.
It happened with a BBC video, too, and with a photo purportedly of Kenyan security forces killing protesters that was actually from Tanzania, and with thousands of spurious blog posts and other false reports that flooded the popular messaging app WhatsApp, fueling further divisions and turmoil in an election that morphed into a major political crisis.
So the US government is gearing up to fight fake news — not at home, where it’s the subject of heated debate following the 2016 presidential campaign, but in Kenya, where America has sought to nurture a vibrant but volatile African democracy.
“Information is, of course, power, and frankly, fake news is a real danger,” US Ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec said in an interview, adding that it had eroded confidence in Kenya’s real news media. “It’s being weaponized. It’s undermining democracy in Kenya.”
Godec kicked off the awareness campaign this past week with an email to the 47,000 members of the State Department’s Young African Leaders Initiative asking them to pledge to prevent the spread of fake media by pausing to verify the source and validity before passing information along to others through social media. For a while this week, the hashtag #StopReflectVerify was the No. 2 trending hashtag on Twitter in Kenya, where the US Embassy pushed it to its 256,000 followers.
In addition to offering resources for discriminating between fact and fake, the campaign involves three-day training sessions for public affairs officials in Kenya’s counties, encouraging local governments to be more responsive and forthcoming so that journalists on deadline can fact-check information they hear. Though it’s starting in Kenya, the program is expected to expand, with an Africa-wide international fact-checking day and a global, virtual event on World Press Freedom Day in May anchored out of Nairobi.
The focus on fighting fake news in Kenya stands in contrast to what’s happening in the United States, where President Donald Trump uses the term to denigrate credible news outlets that publish critical coverage about him or his Republican administration. Trump has also continually downplayed the role that false information from illegitimate sources may have played in affecting the outcome of the election. Last month, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians accused of using a network of fake social media accounts and targeted political messages to stir up turmoil in the 2016 race.
The campaign also comes as the US has been warning Kenya’s government about worrisome restrictions on the legitimate news media. The group Human Rights Watch has said Kenyan officials try to stop critical coverage by threatening, intimidating and harassing journalists. The United States was particularly concerned in February when Kenya shut down major broadcasters after opposition leader Raila Odinga held a mock inauguration on television.
In Kenya, the fake news problem has also raised fears about violence being stoked by false facts that often mushroom on social media before they can be stopped.
At election time, a fake but realistic-looking US diplomatic cable circulated that appeared to show embassy officials predicting instability, celebratory violence, “severe unrest and a massive breakdown of law and order” if Odinga were to defeat Kenyatta in the election. The US embassy quickly tweeted its own version of the cable with the word “FAKE” slapped across it in bold red font.
Yet there are risks for the US in appearing to tell people what to believe, say or not say in Kenya, a former British colony. So the embassy is taking pains to show it’s a locally driven operation, partnering with groups like AfricaCheck, a fact-checking website similar to the US site Snopes.com.
“We’re not asking them to believe any particular thing,” Godec said. “We’re just saying, don’t take everything you see on your phone via WhatsApp as the truth because it may not be.”


In fear of the state: Bangladeshi journalists self-censor as election approaches

Journalists hold banners and placards as they protest against the newly passed Digital Security Act in front of the Press Club in Dhaka, Bangladesh, October 11, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 13 December 2018
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In fear of the state: Bangladeshi journalists self-censor as election approaches

  • The government has denied accusations it’s trying to curb press freedom and Hasina assured a press briefing in October that “journalists who do not publish false news need not worry” about the DSA

DHAKA: With less than a month to go to a general election, many journalists in Bangladesh say they are living in fear of ever-tightening media laws and engaging in self-censorship as a result.
While Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s administration has won plaudits globally for welcoming hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar, critics have lashed out at it for cracking down on free speech and an increasingly authoritarian rule.
In interviews Reuters conducted with 32 journalists and editors across print, digital and broadcast media in Bangladesh, the vast majority said the recent strengthening of defamation laws with a new Digital Security Act (DSA) has spread a climate of fear in the industry.
Dozens of journalists were arrested for defamation under the earlier law, the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act.
The DSA goes further — penalizing obtaining papers, information, or pictures from government offices without official consent, said Asif Nazrul, a professor of Law at the University of Dhaka. “It would make investigative journalism on corruption, human rights abuses and bad governance very tough, if not impossible,” he said.
Another piece of legislation, the Broadcast Act 2018, was proposed in October to regulate broadcast news portals.
Both laws restrict bail and allow arrests without a warrant.
The government has denied accusations it’s trying to curb press freedom and Hasina assured a press briefing in October that “journalists who do not publish false news need not worry” about the DSA.
Journalists, however, question the timing of the laws and have staged protests in recent weeks in the capital Dhaka, particularly against the DSA, which they say will thwart their ability to report independently, especially on the upcoming election.
Critics of Hasina, who is seeking a third straight term in power, say the Dec. 30 election will be a litmus test for the strength of democracy in Bangladesh. The last election in 2014 was boycotted by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) as unfair and shunned by international observers, with more than half the seats uncontested.
Matiur Rahman Chowdhury, editor-in-chief of Manab Zamin, a popular Bengali-language daily, said self-censorship was becoming common.
“As an editor, I feel sad when I kill a report that was the outcome of several days of exhaustive work by a reporter. But I take the decision purely to save the reporter, because I know the risks involved in publishing it,” he said. “I fight every moment with myself and with my shadow.”

“DISTORTING THE TRUTH“
H. T. Imam, a member of the ruling Awami League and Hasina’s political adviser, said journalists need not fear doing their jobs, and “can write on whatever is happening on the ground.”
“But they should restrain themselves from distorting the truth – that is very important,” he told Reuters. “You should not equate liberty with license.”
The government also says new licenses to operate have been issued to several media organizations under Hasina’s rule, indicating its support of an independent press.
But while Bangladesh has a bevy of news outlets, many journalists say they can’t write as freely as they once did. The case of The Daily Star, the country’s most widely-circulated English newspaper, stands out:
“I used to write a column regularly and fearlessly. Now, I seldom do,” said Mahfuz Anam, who has been the editor of The Daily Star for 25 years.
Anam was charged with defamation and treason in more than 80 cases filed by Awami League workers in 2016, with damages sought exceeding $8 billion. They were filed in various lower courts across Bangladesh, forcing him to run around the country seeking bail, and he’s had to obtain periodic stays on them ever since.
Anam says his paper is barred from covering the prime minister’s events, and advertisers have privately told him that officials have pressured them to stop advertising in his paper.
Two officials at two of Bangladesh’s biggest telecom operators said the government had instructed them in 2015 to stop advertising in The Daily Star. They declined to be named for fear of reprisals.
“We never interfere or influence any private organization as it is completely their wish and right,” Information Minister Hasanul Haq told Reuters, referring to the advertisers. He said decisions on who should be allowed to attend the prime minister’s events were taken by Hasina’s security department.

VAGUELY-WORDED LAWS
Government assurances that the laws won’t be used against them have failed to assuage concerns of many journalists, who point to past arrests.
While the police says it doesn’t maintain figures on detained journalists, global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders says at least 25 journalists and several hundred bloggers and Facebook users were prosecuted under the ICT Act in 2017 alone.
The new DSA has “vaguely-worded provisions that would allow authorities to clamp down even more on dissent,” the group said.
Under the proposed broadcast law, media outlets publishing or broadcasting anything deemed to be “false” or against national interest could be fined, lose licenses or see their staff jailed.
It’s unclear how the election results might impact media freedoms. The BNP says it would strike down the DSA if it wins, but it cracked down on media organizations seen as unfriendly when it was in power more than a decade ago.
Bangladesh now ranks 148th out of 180 countries on the press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, sliding from 121 in 2009 when Hasina came to power. Haq, the information minister, said the ranking was not fair as it reflected views of only private organizations. “It could be standard if it reflected both government and private views.”
Many journalists say there is a growing and conspicuous silence on public criticism of the government, especially online.
Those who speak out have faced action: On July 13, a day after Hasina told parliament it was impossible to accede to some student demands, Maidul Islam, a university professor, posted two words on Facebook “Hasi Na.” In the Bengali language, the words mean “Not Laughing.”
Days later, an activist backing the Awami League filed a complaint against Islam under the ICT Act, accusing him of defaming the prime minister. Islam was arrested and jailed for more than a month before he got bail, and if he loses the case he faces up to 14 years in prison.