Human rights organisations have expressed concern over measures taken by governments in the Arab world to fight fake news on the coronavirus, and how this is impacting journalism and the freedom of the press.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and other countries in the Arab world have pledged to fight against fake news that can endanger lives and spread fear. However, human rights organisations have raised concerns over the lack of regulation on government measures to tackle fake news, and fear journalism and the free press is being threatened.
Khaled Drareni, founder of the news website Casbah Tribune and correspondent for global press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has been sentenced to prison on charges of incitement and attacking national unity. His family say the charges stem from Drareni’s coverage of anti-government protests in Algeria on social media.
“I confirm that the press is not a crime. I will continue and we will continue our work as free and independent journalists”, said Drareni.
Drareni’s arrest is the most recent example of governments in the Arab world cracking down on the free and independent press. The UK-based newspaper The Guardian reported that its Egypt correspondent, Ruth Michaelson, was forced to leave the country after she reported on a scientific study that warned Egypt was likely to have many more coronavirus cases than officially confirmed. Michaelson’s press accreditation was revoked and she was asked to attend a meeting with authorities about her visa status before leaving.
In Egypt, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation has blocked multiple news websites for reporting false news about the coronavirus. Activists in Egypt have rejected these decisions, considering them contrary to the freedom of the press and the right to circulate information. In Morocco, multiple arrests have been made on the grounds of spreading false news about the coronavirus and inciting fear. In Lebanon, security forces continue to harass activists despite the end of demonstrations.
Across the region, governments are walking a fine line between controlling the spread of false information and allowing press freedoms.