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The Fact-Checker: June 1, 2020

8 mins read

Will the Trump phenomenon trigger worldwide internet restrictions?

In the next months (and years, perhaps), national policies will be influenced substantially by the twin effects of Covid-19 and American politics under President Trump. While a public health crisis, Covid-19 has unintentionally brought to fore the overt desires of authoritarian regimes and covert yearnings of democratic governments to silence dissenting voices.

As we’ve seen in the Philippines where a new law grants President Rodrigo Duterte additional and far-reaching powers to punish peddlers of fake covid-19 news, similar laws are surfacing around the world. The government of Hungary passed a law in March to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orbán almost unlimited power for an indefinite period, to fight the coronavirus outbreak. Within this time, the country will be in a state of emergency, the Prime Minister will be allowed to rule by decree, and all elections will be suspended. The law also includes a “jail term of up to five years for intentionally spreading misinformation that hinders the government’s response to the pandemic, leading to fears that it could be used to censor or self-censor criticism of the government,” says The Guardian. 

In Iran, where coronavirus cases have soared, censorship laws enable the government to silence or influence critical Covid-19 reporting. The media have been ordered to only use official statistics and in at least one instance, a journalist was forced to delete a tweet for criticizing the official response to the coronavirus. Singapore passed a law last year which allows the government to force online platforms to remove or correct information that authorities deem to be false.

Last year, two infamous bills were brought before the law-making body of Nigeria, just months after the re-election of President Buhari. The ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill of 2019’ seeks to punish individuals who transmit statements that authorities determine to be “false,” likely to “influence the outcome of an election,” or “prejudicial to the security of Nigeria, public safety, tranquillity, public finances and friendly relations of Nigeria with other countries”. The punishment is imprisonment of up to three years or fine up to 300,000 naira (US$844) or both. Offenders who are not individuals face fines up to 10 million naira ($27,247 USD). Another section of the bill introduces fines for companies who fail to comply with orders to disable Nigerians’ access to content. 

Interestingly, there already exists regulations in Nigeria that deal with the propagation of unverified information. The existing Cyber Crimes Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act cover many of the offences the new bills seek to address and have been used as tools to gag freedom of expression in Nigeria. Yet, despite public displeasure with the wide discretionary powers contained therein, the Internet Falsehood bill passed the first and second reading, with nothing but the COVID-19 lockdown to forestall its progress. 

The second bill proposes the establishment of a Commission for the prohibition of hate speech and seeks to punish hate speech with death or life imprisonment. Although this bill seems to be lost in the tracks, one can only wonder if the heightened criticism of this government by citizens on social media could lead to a resurrection of these proposed regulations.

Nigeria’s parliament is also debating a bill preventing the spread of infectious diseases that critics fear could be open to abuses by officials. If signed into law, the health minister will have the right to convert any building into an isolation area. At the same time, the police would be able to arrest any individual suffering from the infectious disease without a warrant, in a country where there is repeated news of police harassment of citizens. Very recently, a Nigerian journalist, Chijioke Agwu, was arrested for writing a story on Lassa fever which the Ebonyi state governor claims violate the state’s coronavirus law. 

Similar measures exist in other countries like the United States of America, albeit covert. For example, Trump has repeatedly continued to belittle the press for its coverage of the virus or any news that does not align with his beliefs at live press conferences and on Twitter. However, things turned for the worse on Tuesday when Trump went a step further to accuse Twitter of “interfering” with the forthcoming 2020 presidential election and “stifling free speech”, and threatened to issue an executive order that will limit the controversial powers of internet platforms to moderate public debate. 

Twitter had labelled two tweets by Trump about mail-in ballots as misleading under a new initiative that started rolling out in February to combat misinformation. The labels link to a page curated either by Twitter’s staff or “external trusted sources” with additional information about the content of the tweet. On Friday, Twitter further flagged a series of messages by Trump for glorifying violence, saying, the message violates Twitter’s usage policies “regarding the glorification of violence based on the historical context of the last line, its connection to violence, and the risk it could inspire similar actions today.”

What many find fascinating, however, is that Twitter had been long condemned for being relatively slow in responding to inciting tweets by politicians, including Trump; with this, Trump is accusing the platform of perceived bias towards him and other conservatives. Although Facebook has declined to take action against the same messages posted by Trump, despite its policy against “statements advocating for high-severity violence”, the executive order will extend to the platform. If the law is upheld, companies will have to choose between taking on expensive legal battles or shutting down their public forums entirely.

While this may be an American event, it’s a widely known idiom that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold. History has also proven that the world is connected in more ways than one, and so it is not unnatural for leaders of other countries to watch as these events unfold. Other countries like Nigeria with “dependent judiciaries” may reinforce social media restrictions, with a detrimental effect on the freedom of expression of its citizens. 

It may be even worse in Nigeria where attacks on journalists take various forms. If Trump’s order is successfully enforced, Nigerian politicians may follow suit and exercise discretionary powers over any information that does not align with the government. 

Last year, Agba Jalingo, the publisher of CrossRiverWatch, was arrested by Nigerian authorities in August after the news website had reported a case of alleged corruption involving Cross River state’s public bank and governor. Officials asserted that the outlet’s reporting was false, treasonous, and inciting. In April 2020, a journalist, Kufre Carter, was arrested for writing an article containing a recording that was claimed to be “false” and replete with “defamatory words against” Dominic Ukpong, the Akwa Ibom State Health Commissioner.  In 2019, Amnesty International released a report chronicling attacks on at least 19 Nigerian journalists between January and September, the highest since 2019.

All this goes on even though this government charged with determining what constitutes false has been caught, at one point or the other, doling out information that is outrightly false, misleading, or one-sided. On several occasions, Lauretta Onochie, media aide to the president of Nigeria, has given misleading information. For example, Lauretta Onochie once posted a video of a large crowd purportedly convening to support the president.  In reality, the video was about an annual Islamic celebration, “Maulud of Sheikh Ibrahim Inyass” which took place at the Eagle Square in April 2018. (The tweet has since been deleted). At other times, she tweeted a wrong picture to discredit the opposing party, used a false photo to emphasise the current administration’s achievements (she later apologised), and tagged Amnesty International’s report of the Nigerian Army’s targeting of MASSOB supporters as falsehood, when there was incontrovertible evidence to prove otherwise.

Furthermore, Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture, and other government officials have also been found guilty of spreading false information by media organisations. In an extensive piece, Dubawa outlines the times the Minister and other officials have promoted wrong information.

The Trump phenomenon which was popularised in 2016 signalled the elevation to the highest office of a “political misfit”. But now, the Trump phenomenon may be forced to refer to a trigger of worldwide restrictive actions at the instance of the current American president.

Coronavirus Q & A 

  • Is there a new virus called Hantavirus?

While the world battles a new strand of coronavirus (SARS-COV-2), an alleged new virus -HantaVirus – sprung up in China. It is important to note that coronavirus originated at a wet market in Wuhan, China and till date has no known cure, vaccine or medically established form of treatment. 

The conversation around Hantavirus started after Global Times, via twitter, reported a death from the virus on Tuesday, 24th of March. Twitter users trended #Hantavirus, with many accusing China of inventing illnesses. But is Hantavirus a new virus? NO!

Hantaviruses are a family of viruses spread mainly by rodents and can cause various disease syndromes in people worldwide. The earliest cases of hantavirus were first recorded during the Korean War when it killed 190 American G.I.’s and sickened about 3,000. 

  • Has the first volunteer to be injected with the coronavirus vaccine died?

No, she is very much alive! Elisa Granato, a microbiologist, had volunteered alongside Edward O’Neill for a vaccine (ChAdOx1 nCoV-19) trial. She was, however, the first to receive the vaccine on April 23rd. 

Not long after the trial, fake news sites spread the news of her death. Nonetheless, the rumour was short-lived after it was quickly debunked by a BBC skype session where the microbiologist appeared and said she was “very much alive.” (Click here to read the entire fact-check)

  • What are the qualities of a good COVID-19 face mask?

The World Health Organization has recommended two types of masks for use against the spread of COVID-19 – the surgical mask and Respirators. While they are both recommended, they have their uniqueness which makes one more effective against the virus than the other.

The surgical masks also known as medical masks are available in different textures, have various levels of fluid-resistance and two levels of filtration. These medical masks reduce the transfer of saliva or respiratory droplets from the wearer to others and to the environment. They also decrease the likelihood of potentially infectious droplets from others once they cover the mouth and nose of the mask wearer.

Respirators, on the other hand, are available in different performance levels: FFP2, FFP3, N95, N99. They are specifically designed for health workers treating COVID-19 patients in areas where special medical procedures are to be taken. They protect against smaller droplets than face masks and require that health-care workers are tested to be infection-free before using a respirator and to ensure that the respirator is sealed tightly on the wearer’s face and is properly fitted.  (see the differences between the surgical masks and N95 respirators)

  • Can Vitamin C protect me against COVID-19?

Despite warnings from health authorities that there is no cure for COVID-19, many have suggested that high dosage of Vitamin C is effective against the disease. Vitamin C is popularly known for boosting immunity and has also been identified to treat the common cold, hence the supposition that it cures COVID-19.

However, experts have come forward to dismiss the claims, saying there is no evidence that vitamin C can cure covid-19. Healthline said, although High dose IV vitamin C has been used in China to help improve lung function in people with COVID-19, its effectiveness is still being tested. In another article republished by Snopes, it was established that although vitamin C is active on the common cold, it’s unlikely that taking large amounts of the supplements will cure a COVID-19 infection.

Tip of the Week

#FakeNews Alert 

Considering that health-related claims are very critical, pay no mind to them and refrain from resharing them to other people, especially when they are posted on social media or Newsblog. These media are known for churning out misleading or fake contents.  

There’s a possibility of this being a case of false attributions. What do you have to do? Questions the message: Where/when did the governor make the claim? Has this report been published on any credible news website? Also, check for grammatical errors. 

Always keep an open mind to international claims published by local blogs. There have been numerous cases where blogs have misrepresented or wrongly capture local events how much more a foreign one? Before you consume or share this post, confirm from credible news platforms. 

Ebele Oputa is a frontline leader who helps organizations do new things or do existing things more efficiently. She has provided strategic, technical and programmatic oversight as well as editorial support of Dubawa since its inception. She is an experienced Programme Officer with a demonstrated history of working in the non-profit organization management industry including the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. Skilled in Negotiation, Training, Leadership, Project Management, and Strategic Communications, Ebele has a Master of Laws (LLM) focused on International Trade and Commercial Law from Durham University.

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