The African Telecommunications Union (ATU) was on Wednesday (29th April 2020) together with other world bodies engaged in a discussion to table strategies and tactics which have been deployed to counter disinformation and misinformation with a special focus on the possible immediate actions that could lead the global response to COVID-19.
Also on the table was the question of how to manage specific communication challenges countries are facing during the period of this pandemic.
The Webinar, tailored by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in collaboration with the office of the UN Under Secretary-General/Special Advisor working on Digital Cooperation attracted 280 participants.
“With increased use of internet for education, online working and information dissemination, we have observed a rise in cybercrimes. However, most African governments are alert and have ensured that there is more vigilance and that misinformation and disinformation is also managed,” said ATU Secretary General Mr. John Omo who represented the African continent in the forum.
Mr. Omo’s sentiments were backed by UN Special Advisor working on Digital Cooperation, Mr. Fabrizio Hochschild who further added, “Disinformation is not new: what is new is the scale, speed and low cost at which it can be spread.”
The discussion comes at a time when Africa is in the forefront to contain misuse of the online space. As a government initiative, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) launched a fact-checking initiative to identify misinformation about COVID 19. Leading media houses in Kenya, South Africa and some other countries in the continent have initiated a fact-checking policy to support every news item piped through their channels. Additionally, many governments in Africa have through legal processes criminalized the circulation of false information and have arrested and charged individuals engaged in the act.
To increase access to credible information, governments such as Rwanda have provided free internet to COVID 19 testing centers and have adopted zero taxing on educational sites dedicated to COVID 19 content. Other measures include the relaxation/rapid assignment of spectrum, without charges, to networks for areas that have never been reached and the development of frameworks to import technology and devises in this time of blockages with new strategies for rapid type approvals. There has also been collaboration with the private sector for the deployment of infrastructure, such as Google Loon, in Kenya to facilitate more coverage.
According to WHO, “infodemics,” has made it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it. Denials of expert advice, fake cures and lies about governments’ response to coronavirus are just some of the disinformation about COVID 19 whose consequences could be harmful to the public. A dramatic surge has also been observed in hate speech, use of dehumanizing language and scapegoating narratives which are increasing the risk of exclusion and violence towards minorities and vulnerable groups.
The forum was also attended by among others: Ms Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of Development Bureau, ITU; Mr Robert Opp, Chief Digital Officer UNDP; Mr Guy Berger, Director for Strategies and Policies in the Field of Communication and Information, UNESCO; H.E Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, Ambassador, Permanent Representative to the UN Office in Geneva, Austria; Ms Mercedes Aramendia, President of the Unidad Reguladora de Servicios de Comunicaciones (URSEC), Uruguay; Ms Liz Corbin, Deputy Media Director and Head of News, EBU; Ms Monika Bickert, Vice President for Content Policy, Facebook; Ms Irene Jay Liu, Google News Lab Lead; APAC and Mr Adama Dieng, Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, UN.