A rising tide of fake news and disinformation is dominating World Press Freedom Day discussions taking place this week in Ethiopia, which is hosting the event after freeing jailed journalists as part of sweeping reforms.
As the world prepares to mark the day on Friday, media practitioners and experts have raised the alarm and deliberated on ways to combat disinformation that they say is becoming a “threat to democracy.” The relationship between the press and democracy is the main theme this year, with more than 100 events taking place around the world. “In my country, Somalia, disinformation is so rampant to the extent that some candidates were falsely alleged to have died or withdrawn right before elections so that their competitors were given more chances of winning,” said Hussein Abdi Adam with Somalia’s electoral commission. “Everybody is using phones these days. And it’s becoming more difficult to deal with it as many of those engaged in this disinformation are based in various parts of the world.”
Ethiopia is drafting a law to deal with hate speech and disinformation, said Billene Seyoum, the press secretary for the East African country’s reformist prime minister.
“This law really won’t curb citizens’ freedom of expression but it rather will safeguard their right to access accurate information and ensure their safety,” she said. “Disinformation is lethal. It also creates fear and divides societies and communities.” This year’s World Press Freedom Day is being held for the first time in Ethiopia, a country that had been infamous for jailing journalists until new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed assumed power in April 2018.
His government set several dozen reporters free. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ethiopia currently has no journalists behind bars and new publications are flourishing on various platforms. Since Abiy came to power the country has unblocked over 260 websites and journalists who had been banned returned home. But the media organization noted that challenges still remain for journalists in Ethiopia, including the risk of attack and arrest, especially in restive regions.
“Perhaps most fundamentally, journalists told CPJ they are anxious for the freedoms they are enjoying to be rooted in law rather than guaranteed only by the goodwill of the Abiy government,” Muthoki Mumo, CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative, noted this week. On Thursday, the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize is being awarded to jailed Myanmar journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone by Ethiopian and African Union officials. The Reuters journalists are serving seven-year prison sentences for their reporting on the military’s brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. This month the One Free Press Coalition is highlighting the Reuters journalists on its “10 Most Urgent” cases along with missing Tanzanian journalist Azory Gwanda, detained Nicaraguan journalists Miguel Mora and Lucia Pineda, imprisoned Indian journalist Aasif Sultan and others.