What we might call fake news – that Katie Price is about to marry the Duke of Edinburgh – and what the authorities call fake news – things the authorities don’t like – are obviously different. The question is, in this fight against fake news which type is it that is being fought against?
After all, it’s not exactly unusual for governments to prevent the publication of information they find unhelpful. We spent most of the 20th century with at least one third of humanity locked into a system where only the approved was able to be published. People went to jail – in extreme cases were shot – for publishing against the official line.
For an example of how this works today consider Tanzania. One of the leading newspapers in the country, The Citizen, is currently closed. The crime being publishing something the government would prefer not be published. Actually, to put it into UK terms, publishing a number that disagreed with the Office for National Statistics. The US equality being disagreeing with Census on a number.
That last for example, Census publishes a consumer price index. It’s generally agreed among economists – actually, Census itself agrees – that it overstates inflation. There’s discursive and ongoing discussion about how to make the reporting of the inflation rate better. In Tanzania it’s just a crime to disagree with the government number.
The Statistics Act of 2017 bans any publication of statistical information contrary to the official figures, with possible jail terms for those who do.
This reminds of Argentina a few years back. The country had issued bonds which were denominated in the local currency. Interest was, again in pesos, linked to the inflation rate. The government’s reporting of that inflation rate – note, what would influence the amount of interest that had to be paid – was generally thought to be undercooking the true number. A group of private sector economists tried to work out and report what it really was – the government tried to arrest them.
Yes, arrests for trying to work out the real number. Venezuela has complained bitterly for years now about the reporting of the black market foreign exchange rate. On the grounds that it was embarrassing to the Bolivarian socialists to find out that the bank notes were worth less than the toilet paper in such short supply.
Tanzania has ensconced such an idea in law.
Tanzania has suspended The Citizen newspaper for seven days. The government accused the privately-owned local daily of publishing false news in a story on depreciation of the shilling against the dollar on February 23. The paper “deliberately published misleading information that the value of the Tanzanian shilling has declined compared to three years ago without following the due procedure and financial standards set by the Bank of Tanzania ,” Mr Patrick Kipangula, the registrar of newspapers, said in a letter on Wednesday.
Yep, reporting reality is a crime:
The letter banning the newspaper and dated February 27, 2019 was signed by the Newspaper Registrar, Mr Patrick Kipangula, on behalf of the director of Information Services Department, Dr Hassan Abbasi. It was sent to the Executive Editor of Mwananchi Communications Limited. The ban also include the newspaper’s website.
“In the story, you deliberately and fallaciously misled the public into believing that the value of the Tanzania shilling has depreciated when compared to the last three years without following the law and regulations that require all the financial rates to be declared by the Bank of Tanzania,” read part of the said letter.
There’s reality and there’s what the government says. Reporting reality, where it conflicts, is a crime:
The Citizen was accused of relaying false information in a recent article on the devaluation of Tanzanian shilling. It reported the US dollar was selling at 2 415 Tanzanian shillings, compared to 2 300 at the central bank’s rate, according to surveys carried out in foreign exchange bureaus and banks.
How’s that for fighting against fake news?
And don’t you dare think that’s not what would happen here if government gained the power to regulate what is fake news and what is not. Why the hell do you think they’re so keen to gain said power?