Beware of “False News” Laws — a warning from Zimbabwe

Many of us have been upset by erroneous and biased reports in the news media. Often, such stories, where touching on important issues, prompt us to wonder whether we need something more than libel laws and other mechanisms to prevent such stories and to seek correction. How about criminal laws against reporting false news?

These emotions are understandable, but the remedy is misguided and open to abuse.

Consider the charge of “false news” which is popular in some countries. I recently attended a journalism conference in Beijing, China, and was puzzled by how the Chinese presenters were preoccupied with what they called the problem of false news. I came to believe we were not using the phrase in the same sense. In my sense, it means an inaccurate story, or a story that invents facts or events.

But in China and other countries, the phrase has a politically meaning, justifying political abuses. In many contexts, “false news” is code for “a story that upsets or criticizes the government or some part of the governing system” or “goes against the ideology of a person or group.” For any criminal laws on false news we must ask: Who will determine what is true and false in the news?

Take a look at the phenomena of false news in Zimbabwe, a country which, like China, is not known for its robust free speech protections, to say the least. Below is a post that I tweeted today. A court strikes down a false news law. The story reaffirms the long-standing view that criminal laws against the content of speech and publications is always a dangerous tool that can be twisted to the advantage of the powerful:

“In what is being hailed as a victory for a free speech, the Zimbabwean constitutional court last week declared that the legal prohibition on publishing “false statements” was unconstitutional.
A provision of the country’s criminal law codification reform act made the reporting of false news likely to undermine public confidence in the uniformed forces a crime punishable with a high fine as well as a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
The court ruled last Tuesday (22 July) that the provision violated the right to freedom of expression and was not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.
It followed an appeal by two Zimbabwean journalists, Constantine Chimakure, a former editor at the Zimbabwe Independent, and Vincent Kahiya, the group editor-in-chief.
They were prosecuted after publishing a story in which intelligence and police officials were identified as being involved in the abduction of opposition and human rights activists in 2008.”