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.”


Jailed Egyptian photographer wins UNESCO press freedom prize

Updated 23 April 2018
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Jailed Egyptian photographer wins UNESCO press freedom prize

PARIS: The United Nations’ cultural agency has ignored warnings from Egypt and awarded the World Press Freedom prize to an imprisoned Egyptian photographer.
A jury on Monday awarded the honor to Mahmoud Abu Zeid, known as Shawkan, who has been in jail since he was arrested in Cairo in August 2013 for covering a demonstration at Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry strongly warned UNESCO against the move Sunday, saying that Shawkan faces terror-related charges.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions says Shawkan’s arrest is arbitrary and his continued detention infringes his human rights.
Jury President Maria Ressa said the award, which recognizes the promotion of press freedom especially in the face of danger, “pays tribute to his courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression.”