African governments are increasingly enacting laws that
criminalise false news or adopting practices such as internet shutdowns
as strategies to address the spread of online false news during elections.
These approaches have an adverse effect on the way in which citizens
exercise their freedom of expression and access information necessary
to develop an informed electorate that can meaningfully participate
in elections. Electoral authoritarian regimes also adopt such practices
to supress critical voices and reduce the transparency and integrity of
electoral processes that have been tilted in their favour. Admittedly,
false news poses a threat to the quality of information in the public
sphere, particularly when deployed to manipulate the decisions of
voters. This article calls for more proactive and human rights-based
approaches to addressing the scourge of false news. In doing so, the
article juxtaposes the measures adopted by South Africa (2019 and
2021) and Tanzania (2020) in their elections. It recommends that
states and other stakeholders implement media and information literacy
measures and ensure that owners of digital technologies apply human rights-based approaches in their policies and practices as opposed to
punitive measures and internet shutdowns. This reflects a democratic
culture that is more in alignment with international laws and standards
on promoting and protecting freedom of expression during elections.
This article emanates
from a paper presented during a virtual conference on ‘Elections and COVID-19:
Harnessing the pandemic to improve elections’ organised by the Centre for
Human Rights, University of Pretoria, 4-5 November 2020.