By Bruna Komarchesqui
Although terms such as fake news and hate speech have been gaining prominence in debates about national security – not only in Brazil, but in other countries with solid democracy, such as the United States – worldwide experiences show that fighting “fake news” is a recurring argument among dictatorships to censor and repress dissidents.
With freedom of expression in decline worldwide, last year, the number of journalists arrested for practicing their profession hit a new global record.
According to a survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, non-profit organization based in New York, as of early December, there were 363 reporters deprived of their freedom (20% more than the previous year) on the planet, 39 of them on charges of spreading fake news.
The top five leaders in the ranking of incarceration of press professionals are Iran, China, Myanmar, Turkey, and Belarus.
“Imprisoning journalists is just one measure of how authoritarian leaders try to strangle press freedom. Around the world, governments are also perfecting tactics like ‘fake news’ laws and using criminal defamation and vaguely worded legislation to criminalize journalism.”
“They are ignoring the rule of law, abusing the judicial system, and exploiting technology to spy on reporters and their families,” analyzes Arlene Getz, CPJ editorial director.
Check out seven times that dictatorships have claimed to fight fake news to silence journalists and ordinary citizens’ criticism of the regime:
In October 2020, the dictator of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, sanctioned the Special Law on Cybercrime, criminalizing content considered false by the government.
The so-called Gag Law provides for one to ten years in prison for journalists and ordinary citizens who criticize the dictatorship in the media and on social networks.
According to the legislation, it is the government itself that defines whether published information is false.
Ortega uses this expedient to discredit investigative reporting and denunciations of human rights violations committed by the regime.
Since 2021, so-called “hate crimes” have been punishable by life imprisonment in the country.
This was the charge suffered by Bishop Rolando Álvarez when he was arrested in August last year.
“Let us remember that hate is a crime, that every crime is a felony, and a felony that must be investigated,” said Rosario Murillo, who is married to Ortega, as well as being his vice president.
Accused of “betraying the homeland”, the bishop was sentenced to 26 years in prison for “conspiracy to undermine national integrity and spreading false news through information and communication technologies to the detriment of the Nicaraguan state and society”.
In a partial reform of the Penal Code in 2005, Venezuela added article 297-A, stating that “any individual who, through false information disseminated by any means, print, radio, television, telephone, e-mail or pamphlet writing, causes panic in the community or keeps it in distress, shall be punished by imprisonment for two to five years.”
In practice, the legislation served as the basis for imprisoning journalists who published information about Covid-19 in the country during the pandemic.
During the 2021 election campaign, Venezuela’s Communications Minister Freddy Ñáñez reported that Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship planned to surveil social networks to “guarantee freedom of expression.”
“Guaranteeing freedom of thought is much more complex than giving voice and visibility to the different proposals, discourses, and options. It also has a lot to do with accuracy and the opportunity for this to reach the Venezuelan people truly,” he justified.
One of the countries that arrest the most journalists in the world, according to CPJ, Egypt also uses the expedient of “restricting fictitious news” as a “necessary path to national security.”
In 2018, the Egyptian parliament passed a law determining that social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers would now be treated as media and could be prosecuted for publishing fake news.
The previous year, the regime had already decided to remove 21 sites, including Al Jazeera, on charges of “supporting terrorism and spreading fake news.
The English newspaper The Guardian stresses that “fake news” is “a powerful tool of government repression” in Egypt.
In the election year, in which he ran almost single-handedly for intimidating the opposition, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi claimed that the government faced “21,000 rumors in three months,” which was spreading instability.
During the pandemic, Reporters Without Borders reported that Egypt’s top media regulator blocked or limited access to news sites and social media accounts, claiming they were spreading “rumors” about the pandemic.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Russia has stepped up its control of information within the country, censoring the press, limiting internet signals, removing websites, and restricting social networks.
On the one hand, the terms war, attack, or invasion were banned in independent media by Roskomnadzor, the communications regulatory agency, and were to be replaced by “special military operation in the Donbas.”
On the other hand, official organs exhaustively published the version that Putin was “denazifying” Ukraine for committing genocide against Russians.
Last year, Roskomnadzor accused Wikipedia of hosting false information about its “special military operation,” threatening to fine the platform if it did not delete the content.
“Fake news” is also a tool of repression used to arrest and convict journalists who disseminate information about the war.
One of them is Mikhail Afanasyev, editor-in-chief of Novy Fokus, who was arrested in April last year for spreading “deliberately false information,” according to the government, about 11 dissident soldiers in the Russian army.
In March 2022, Putin sanctioned a law to punish fake news about the war and the army.
Belarus’ National Assembly passed a draft amendment in June 2018 allowing the “prosecution of persons suspected of spreading ‘false’ information on the internet.”
The government claims the measure is a way to protect the information security, but analysts point to the legislation as an upsurge in media censorship in the country.
“The Belarusian government has jumped on the ‘fake news’ bandwagon not because it wants to protect citizens from falsehoods, but because it wants more power to decide what information they receive,” said Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator.
On Thursday, dictator Alexander Lukashenko, Russia’s main ally in the war in Ukraine, enacted a law that punishes high treason committed by state officials with the death penalty.
The legislation “toughens” the penal code regarding crimes of extremism and terrorism. Recently, the country sentenced Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Ales Bialiatski to ten years in prison.
After thousands of people took to the streets to demand freedom and better living conditions amidst a severe economic and health crisis in Cuba in 2021, the Cuban dictatorship announced a new cybersecurity regulation, deeming the publication of “subversive” content on the internet a “hazardous” incident.
Known as the “Gag Law,” the matter allows the regime to sanction critics of the Communist Party (PCC, the only legal party) or dictator Miguel Díaz-Canel.
The rule also makes it possible to restrict the internet in situations the government considers false information.
While Cuban regulations consider pornography to be medium-risk material, “social subversion,” which consists of “attempting to alter public order and promoting social indiscipline,” is regarded as a “very high” risk.
Censorship of information is a world-famous hallmark of China, which has come under the spotlight with the effects of the zero-covid policy and its widely disparate official data.
In January, The Guardian reported that “health forecasting firm Airfinity estimated that more than 600,000 people have likely died since zero-covid restrictions were suspended in December,” ten times more than Chinese authorities have officially released.
To eliminate “dark feelings” caused by pandemic “rumors” during this year’s Lunar New Year festival, Chinese cyber authorities will deploy what they have called “Spring Festival online improvement.”
The measure is to “thoroughly rectify false information and other issues” about the spread of Covid and patients’ experiences. “It seems the best way to solve the problem is to ‘cover your mouth,’.” said one Chinese user on Twitter.
Another issue silenced by Chinese censorship is the torture of Uighur Muslims.
According to a BBC report in 2021, “in addition to its heavy restrictions on foreign journalists trying to report the truth about the far western region of Xinjiang, China has a new tactic: labeling independent coverage as ‘fake news’.”
With information from Gazeta do Povo