"The dust storm that is going to hit Egypt will eliminate the coronavirus". That is how the video starts, with the addition, of course, of "Subhan Allah" (Glory to God) or "Bi Ithan Allah" (By God’s Will). WhatsApp chats are abuzz with "voice messages" full of treatments for the virus, from quinine in Lebanon, to gargling with salt water to kill the virus in Egypt.Even the media have had no issue circulating unconfirmed treatments.
Messages have falsely attributed treatments to trusted international organizations like UNICEF.
Messages and posts not attributed to a source have spread widely and, not settling for just offering alternative treatments, have even started to pre-empt government measures to counter the virus, declaring a curfew in Jordan on March 17 before it was actually put in place on March 21.Likewise in Egypt, many posts have spread fear among citizens and branded areas as infected, like the announcement that the Ariana governorate in Tunisia was suffering an outbreak or the predictions of infections in Lebanon that started with the arrival of Iranian flights before the airport was closed. A video also circulated of Moroccan security dispersing citizens who had violated the curfew, and news was shared of the arrival in Jordan of a ship from Egypt carrying 4,000 people onboard.
These news stories have been a source of anxiety, fear, and have sometimes provoked campaigns of hostility or hatred against areas branded as "infected". For instance, judgement and abuse were launched against southerners in Wadi Al-Hajir in Lebanon after an image was spread of a large gathering [there] despite the suspension of schools and the banning of large groups, which was then retracted when it became clear that the image was not recent.
Conjecture about the end of the school year or a delay in official exams has been common in most Arab countries.
On the matter of how the pandemic spread, everyone seems to have turned into a doctor and you would think that the World Health Organization knew nothing about it. There are news reports about the transmission of the virus from people who have recovered, about its spread because of 5G networks, or even about analyses of Arab genes that protect us from the virus more than the genes of those in Europe or East Asia.
It has been easy, too, for people to share incorrect news about famous people becoming ill with the virus, from politicians to artists to football players.
Everyone seems to have turned into a strategic analyst and conspiracy scenarios are given on request. It is an American conspiracy, even its target is certain: hitting the Chinese economy. The conspiracies extend even to the possibility that the pandemic does not exist at all, as in the video that spread on YouTube of a Moroccan activist, in which she denies the existence of the pandemic.
Even politicians have fallen into the trap of false news. Perhaps the most prominent example is what happened to the Tunisian Prime Minister, Elyes Fakhfakh, during his speech before the Tunisian Parliament on March 26, 2020. As he spoke about his government's efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, Fakhfakh repeated that the prime minister of a major nation had said that "all solutions are exhausted on ground and our only hope remains up in the Sky," in reference to a statement attributed to the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. It was later revealed that the statement ascribed to the Italian official was fabricated and that it had no basis in truth.
Countering False News in Arab Countries
Tunisia is using Article 54 of Decree Law No. 115 of 2011 to combat false news during the coronavirus crisis.The article includes a fine of from 2,000 to 5,000 dinars for anyone who deliberately circulates false news that would undermine the character of public order, whether through speeches, statements, publications, or images.
On March 12, a group of Tunisian members of parliament submitted to parliament a draft law to counter false news, which they later withdrew after it sparked a major outcry.
The proposal of Law No. 29/2020, which relates to the modification of chapters 245 and 247 of the Penal Code, contained provisions that were in blatant conflict with chapters 31, 32 and 49 of the Tunisian constitution, and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,which is ratified by the Tunisian Republic.
Member of Parliament and former Minister, Mabrouk Korchid, who put forward the law, asserted that its aim is to "counter false news and also to moralise political and social life by tackling cybercrime related to the defilement and violation of the honor of individuals."
The bill included a restriction on freedom of publication and made members of parliament immune from criticism. It considered any criticism they are subjected to on social media sites a violation against them, with the perpetrator facing punishment through monetary fines ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 Tunisian dinars (about 6,500 US dollars), and those in violation of this law may even be punished by imprisonment.
The bill was met with alarge backlash from Tunisian media actors, and particularly from the Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists. Syndicate President, Naji Al-Baghouri, wrote on Facebook that “after the diplomatic passport scandal, a number of members of parliament are seeking to ensure their immunity from criticism, by proposing a fascist law which would imprison their critics on social media... The cover: combating false news.”
Article 297 of the Lebanese Penal Code, amended in 1993, stipulates that "any Lebanese person who, in full awareness of the matter, publicly circulates false or exaggerated news that would undermine the state's prestige or financial position, shall be punished with imprisonment for at least six months and a fine of between 100,000 and one million Lebanese pounds. The court may decide to publish the ruling. "
This article is applied to false news shared on social media. As for those that publish false news on electronic news sites, in newspapers, and in audio-visual media, they are held accountable according to the Lebanese Publications Law.
Article 3 of Amended Legislative Decree No. 104, which amended the Publications Law issued in 1962, indicates that if the false news relates to natural or legal persons without disturbing the public peace, then prosecution depends on the complaint of the aggrieved, and those responsible are punished with a fine of 3,000 to 10,000 Lebanese pounds. The fine may be raised to 20 times this amount.
On March 13, 2020, Dr.Hadi Murad was summoned before the Central Criminal Investigation Office on charges of circulating false news, due to his participation in the "It's About Time" program on the MTV channel and his comments about the Lebanese authorities' failure to declare a state of emergency in light of the spread of the coronavirus. Moreover, the Lebanese Minister of Health, Hamad Hassan, issued a decision to withdraw Murad's license to practice medicine, but he later backed down and returned it.
The intensity of news emerging about coronavirus cases prompted the Lebanese Ministry of Information to launch a page dedicated to the coronavirus crisis, which updates the numbers of infections daily.According to the ministry, it is a new media platform for "official, accurate and correct news", which the citizen can turn to find out the latest developments regarding the global coronavirus pandemic. The Ministry of Health has also sent a memorandum to the judiciary requesting the prosecution of anyone who spreads rumors and false information.
Article 132 of the Jordanian Penal Code is being used to counter false news. The article stipulates that "any Jordanian who, in full awareness of the matter, circulates false or exaggerated news that would undermine the state's prestige or financial position, shall be punished with imprisonment for at least six months and a fine of not more than 50 dinars."
The use of this legal article to counter rumors during the coronavirus crisis was confirmed after the Jordanian monarch, King Abdullah II, issued a royal decree on March 17, 2020 to activate the "Defense Law of 1992", which gives the prime minister broad powers to restrict basic rights, such as freedom of expression and movement.
In this regard, Jordanian human rights activist,Fadi Al-Qadi, confirmed that, according to the Jordanian News Agency, Petra, 35 false news reports were circulated duringlast month (March).
These news reports relate to the number of infections and their whereabouts, in addition to some rumors about anticipated government measures, such as the closure of schools and universities, and the duration of the curfew.
Al-Qadi said that "the defense law has increased the possibilities for the government to prosecute people who publish false news on social media, either by imprisonment or a fine."
Based on this, on March 3 the Amman Public Prosecution decided to arrest, on March 4, 2020, four people who had posted exaggerated news about the coronavirus and the extent of its spread in Jordan using their pages and accounts on social media.The Public Prosecution charged those arrested in connection with the case with circulating exaggerated news that would undermine the state's prestige or position based on the provisions of Article 132 of the Penal Code and in accordance with the Cybercrime Law.
Article 168 of the Bahraini Penal Code, amended in 2012, related to the circulation of false news, the right to freedom of expression and the misuse of social media, stipulates that "anyone who intentionally circulates false news, knowing that it could cause harm to national security, public order or public health, whenever the consequent damage occurs, shall be punished by imprisonment for a period of not more than two years and by a fine of not more than200 dinars, or by one of these two penalties."
This law is being widely used in Bahrain during the coronavirus crisis.Hence, the Director-General of the General Directorate of Anti-Corruption and Economic and Electronic Security, Bassam Al Miraj announced that there had been 35 reports related to insulting and to publishing false news, of which 23 were referred to the Public Prosecution.
Al Miraj explained that, despite the current conditions for fighting the spread of the coronavirus, it had been noted that a number of social media users were circulating fabricated news.
On this matter, journalist Reem Khalifa said that Article 168 of the Penal Code related to the publication of false news has been applied for years.However, the penalty of imprisonment has been changed to house arrest in order to maintain public safety and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
On April 22, 2020 an amendment to the Penal Code was passed in the Algerian Parliament, specifically criminalizing the publication and circulation of false news with the aim of undermining public order and security.
The amended articles of the Penal Code stipulated that "anyone who, by any means, deliberately publishes or circulates false news that undermines public security and order shall be punished with imprisonment from one to three years, while the penalty is doubled in the case of repeated offenses."
Moreover, Article 96 of the Algerian Penal Code was being used to counter any false news about the coronavirus crisis before the amendment was approved.Article 96 states that "anyone who distributes, puts up for sale, displays to the public eye, or possesses with the intention of distributing, selling, or displaying for the purpose of advertising, pamphlets, flyers, or documents that would cause harm to the public interest, shall be punished with imprisonment from six months to three years and a fine of 3,600-36,000 Algerian dinars.If the documents and publications are from a foreign source or of foreign inspiration, the penalty of imprisonment is raised to five years.”
The Algerian authorities had previously used these legal articles, before the decision to explicitly criminalize false news, to prosecute a publishing director, an editor-in-chief, and a journalist at the newspaper Al-Sawt Al-Akhar on April 2, 2020. This, after they published a report that questioned the validity of the analysis carried out by the "Pasteur Institute" related to those infected with coronavirus, and the three people involved are currently under judicial supervision.
This type of prosecution, in accordance with the penal code, has generated self-censorship by Algerian journalists, and limited the sources that are used to cover coronavirus news, according to journalist Salim Bouzidi.
Bouzidi confirmed to "Maharat Magazine" that since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the Algerian Ministry of Communication has issued a release to the media, stating that any news or publications that appear to be inaccurate with regard to the coronavirus will be dealt with very strictly.
The Libyan authorities are using Article 175 of the Libyan Penal Code to deal with any false news materials about coronavirus.Article 175 stipulates: “Anyone who intentionally circulates news, information or rumors that are false, biased or provocative propaganda in time of war, and are such as to cause harm to the military preparations for defense of the country, sow terror among the people or to undermine the resilience of the nation shall be punished by the penalties stipulated in Article 173.That is to say, he shall be punished with imprisonment and a fine of 500 dinars to 1,000 dinars.”
As for the eastern regions of Libya that are under the control of Khalifa Haftar, there is no clear application of any law related to combating false news. So much seemed clear from the arrest of a member of the counter-coronavirus team in Benghazi, Dr.Mohamed Ajram, who had announced in a television interview that there was no basic equipment to test for the coronavirus in those suspected of being infected in Benghazi.
After Ajram criticized the authorities in eastern Libya, he was detained by gunmen loyal to Haftar and was transferred for investigation by the head of the Counter-coronavirus Committee, AbdulRazzaq Al-Nadhuri.
Al-Nadhuri said in a press conference after the detention of Ajram, that "critics of those who working to combat coronavirus are traitors." He added "Do not listen to any criticism... Consider anyone you hear expressing criticism a traitor, because criticism is not permitted. "
On this matter, the director of the Libyan news agency "Al-Ghayma", Tariq al-Houni, explained that there are a number of legal articles that penalize the publication of false news, but these articles are broad and poorly applied in practice, as with Ajram's arrest.
Journalist Sufyan Khalifa also told "Maharat Magazine" that the legislative system in Libya has been stalled since 2011.Since 2012, Libya has been going through a transitional period and has witnessed a number of armed conflicts and economic turmoil. As a result, it has failed to pass new laws commensurate with developments in many areas, including the continued increase in the publishing and circulation of false news in recent years.
Khalifa pointed out that the spread of false news about the coronavirus pandemic is taking place on social media platforms, and the Libyan authorities do not have any real capability to correct the false information that is circulating.
There are several legal texts that the Iraqi authorities are using to counter any news they consider to be false or misleading during the coronavirus crisis. The Iraqi authorities use Article 433 of the Iraqi Penal Code related to defamation and slander. The law stipulates imprisonment from one day to five years, or a fine of not less than 200,000 Iraqi dinars and not more than one million Iraqi dinars.
The Publications Law No. 206 of 1968 is also used, as Article 16 stipulates that it is not permissible to publish anything that could be considered a disparagement of thestate’s prestige.Anyone who violates the provisions of this law shall be punished with imprisonment for a period not more than 30 days or a fine of not more than 50 dinars, or with both penalties.
In addition, there are the laws under which the Communications and Media Commission of Iraq was established.The Communications and Media Commission of Iraq has used its authority to revoke licenses granted under the authority’s law in force No. 65 of 2004.For instance, it decided to suspend the license of the "Reuters Agency" office in the country for a period of three months, and to fine it 25 million Iraqi dinars (approximately 20,000 dollars), after the agency published a report on the number of infections with the coronavirus in Iraq.
In a statement published on April 3, 2020, the Communications and Media Commission of Iraq expressed its "surprise and condemnation of what was published by Reuters news agency, and at its claim that the number of people infected with coronavirus in Iraq exceeds what has been recorded and declared."
There are no laws exclusively pertaining to false news in Egypt, but there are a number of articles within the Egyptian Penal Code related to the crime of false news, namely Article No. 80 paragraph (d) and No. 102 bis and No. 188.
These articles punish any Egyptian who intentionally circulates false news, information or rumors about the internal conditions of the country with imprisonment for a period of not less than six months and not more than five years, and a fine of not less than 100 pounds and not more than 500 pounds, or one of these two penalties.
The Public Prosecution confirmed that "in accordance with the text of Article No. 188, anyone who, by whatever means, maliciously publishes false news, information or rumors, or documents that are false, forged, or falsely attributed to a third party, if that would disturb the public peace, cause panic among the people, or harm the public interest, shall be punished by imprisonment for a period of not more than a year and a fine of not less than 5,000 pounds and not more than 20,000 pounds, or one of these two penalties. "
These articles have been applied in order to charge anyone arrested because of their social media content with deliberately spreading false news and information to harm the country's interests.For instance, lawyer Mohsen Bahni and activist Noha Kamal were arrested after they wrote posts on the social networking site "Facebook" demanding that the Ministry of Interior and the Prison Sector Authority release, as a precaution, those detainees who were not implicated in acts of violence against the state, in light of the state's efforts to counter the novel coronavirus.
They were referred to the State Security Prosecution, interrogated and remanded in custody on charges of joining a terrorist group, misusing a social media outlet and of spreading and circulating false news and information.
Morocco is using the Anti-Rumors and False News Law of 2018 to counter false news related to coronavirus.
The law stipulates that "anyone who intentionally, by any means including information systems, publishes false rumors or news without the means of verifying it, or captures, records, broadcasts or distributes statements or information issued privately or secretly without the consent of the party concerned, shall be punished with imprisonment from six months to three years, and a fine of 2,000 to 20,000 dirhams (about 2,000 dollars).”
The most prominent arrest made over to the publication of false news, was on March 17 this year, with the detention of a Moroccan activist on YouTube, "Mother Naima”. In a video she had denied the existence of the new coronavirus pandemic and had encouraged people not to comply with the preventative recommendations and precautionary decisions ordered by the public authorities to avoid the spread of infection.
The Moroccan government also quickly ratified a bill related to the use of social networks, on April 7, 2020.The government said in a statement that the drafting of this bill, presented by the Minister of Justice, "came in the context of the legal and institutional measures that the Kingdom is taking to counter emerging patterns of electronic crime, and to strengthen mechanisms to fight it, without violating freedom of digital communication, which is considered a means of exercising constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression."
The bill aimed to "bridge the legislative vacuum in the national legal system, to deter all [undesirable] behaviors committed on social networks and similar networks, such as the spreading false news...Especially in the current circumstances that the world is witnessing, and that our country is living through, linked to the spread of the coronavirus. "
Meanwhile, the Public Prosecution has made a concerted effort to confront false news, with many of those behind this misinformation having been arrested, and 81 judicial investigations having been opened, after which the judiciary moved to prosecute 58 people. The rest of the investigations remain ongoing, according to the Public Prosecution, which has threatened that "the law will not hesitate to apply the necessary rigor to violators who endanger citizens' health security and show contempt for the lives and safety of citizens."
In order to counter false news, the Omani authorities are using Article 17 of the Cybercrime Law, which stipulates that: “Anyone who uses an information network or information technology tools to gamble or produce, publish, distribute, buy, acquire in a way that would violate public morals,or to promote programs, ideas, or activities that would do so, shall be punished with imprisonment for a period of not less than a month and not more than three years, and a fine of not less than 100 Omani riyals and not more than 3,000 Omani riyals, or one of these two penalties.”
The Omani Public Prosecution has dealt with several cases related to the spreading of rumors during the coronavirus crisis.For instance, on March 30 it was announced that arrest warrants had been issued against nine people accused of spreading rumors related to the coronavirus, including some who had posted videos claiming to have found a cure for the disease, and others who had started rumors about infections in areas where no infections had been recorded. Two of those accused were subsequently sentenced to prison for a year, of which they will carry out one month and pay a fine.
The Yemeni authorities are using Yemen's Penal Code No. 12 of 1994 to counter the spread of false news about coronavirus. Article 198 of the law stipulates that:“Anyone who commits one of the following acts shall be punished by imprisonment for a period not more than one year or by a fine not more than1,000 Yemeni riyals: First: Anyone who publicly and maliciously circulates or spreads false, forged, or fabricated news or documents, or those falsely attributed to a third party, if it would disturb the public peace or harm the public interest. If the circulation and spreading as such led to the disruption of public peace or damage to the public interest, the punishment shall be doubled.”
Journalists have not yet been restricted, as there has only been one case of the virus.
International Standards for Countering False News
In February, the World Health Organization expressed its concern about the phenomenon of the spread of false news around the coronavirus pandemic and called it an "Infodemic". This phenomenon has resulted in the promotion of incorrect treatments and the emergence of conspiracy theories. These, in turn, have caused fear and discrimination and spurred hate speech, which could have severe consequences in terms of violence and discrimination.
This phenomenon has been the focus of attention of governments, journalists, civil society and the major intermediary companies that run social media, where false news is spread.
In view of some governments’ disproportionate and inappropriate methods for dealing with the spread of false news, international organizations have worked to reiterate the general principles that protect fundamental rights, the most important of which is freedom of expression.
Most Arab countries have tended to criminalize false news and link it with the threat to public peace, without taking into account international standards and laws.
The general reference framework on freedom of expression, false news and propaganda was expressed in a joint declaration by the Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression and Opinion, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Organization of American States on March 3, 2017.The general principles set out by this declaration of states call attention to the basic standards that should be met by any restriction on freedom of expression, namely legitimacy, necessity, and proportionality.The declaration also laid down standards for dealing with false news, especially with regard to states preventing the sharing of information based on broad ideas including false news, which does not fit with international standards on restricting freedom of expression. Criminal defamation and slander laws that criminalise publication must also be repealed,and civil laws should be depended on instead.
The Article 19 Organization also published in March a policy paper on false news and the coronavirus, in which it addressed recommendations to states and social media platforms.
In its recommendations to states, the organization urged public authorities to move away from criminal prosecutions and other criminal measures as a primary means for fighting hate speech and false news.It also called on these countries to review their laws to bring them in line with international standards and to stop harassing journalists, especially those covering the coronavirus and how authorities are responding.This, in addition to the duty of the public authorities to automatically publish information and to avoid publishing news the aim of which is propaganda.Most importantly, governments should take into consideration the promotion of digital media education, both in general and in relation to the coronavirus, through partnerships with the media, schools, civil society and social media platforms, who should all carry out concordant efforts.
The recommendations also urged the media to make more efforts to verify information and confront false news and propaganda.As for social media platforms, they should be more transparent in their policies, especially regarding content management and their relations with governments, to reject anything that could constitute a violation of human rights.
All parties must support each other in their efforts to counter false news and promote digital media education and critical thought, rather than enacting unfair laws that will not be able to keep pace with technology and the speed at which news spreads, and which, of course, constitute a fundamental restriction on freedom of expression.