President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his extraordinary and powerful address to the nation on Monday night [23 March 2020], has placed South Africa in a 21-day lockdown.
Only personnel and businesses regarded as being essential to “continued operations”, would be allowed out in public. And media workers employed in “communication and media services on screen, TV, radio, print, broadcast and online” were listed as one of those essential services.
In a statement, the South African National Editors’ Forum said it was ” essential that journalists are allowed to do their jobs so that ordinary citizens have a clear understanding of what is happening in their country – so that they can contain and fight the disease”.
It said with people under lockdown, the media was needed to keep the nation abreast of what is happening, to know what to do. “Media companies have already taken special measures to ensure only a skeleton staff is on call,” SANEF said.
Meanwhile, it said it would require clarity from GCIS on categories of media workers that may be excluded: Would this include workers at printing presses, delivery truck drivers etc? SANEF listed identification issues, press cards, possible child care for single parents who are journalists as issues that needed to be clarified. “We will report back to the industry as soon as we have further information.”
SANEF reiterated its call for all media houses to take all necessary precautions to ensure the safety of journalists and to avoid sensationalism.
In terms of the Disaster Management Act, spreading or publishing fake news or misinformation has become an offence.
(5) Any person who publishes any statement, through any medium, including social media, with the intention to deceive any other person about:
(b) COVID-19 infection status of any person; or
(c) any measure taken by the Government to address COVID-19,
commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months, or both such fine and imprisonment.
This regulation is the first in democratic South Africa that criminalises disinformation. “However, we note that what distinguishes it from previous apartheid laws is that it is narrowly and tightly defined. SANEF notes the importance of curbing the spread of disinformation – and its potentially devastating consequences – but we are also equally mindful of the problem of setting dangerous precedents for the long term,” the organisation said.
Government should ensure that the regulations were strictly limited to the pandemic. As such, SANEF welcomed the launch of the REAL411 platform by Media Monitoring Africa, “which is a good response to the problem in normal times. We note that this is one of a number of important initiatives to counteract the dissemination of disinformation and misinformation in the media including initiatives from AfricaCheck.
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