Here in the United States, the term "fake news" is used (most prominently by the President) to declaim news stories the reader doesn't like. It has little to do with whether or not the content is untruthful and almost everything to do with swinging public opinion against the press outlet and its reporting.
The term has become a handy tool for autocrats and authoritarians seeking to punish journalists and others who publish content they don't like. The stakes in the United States are still low. Elsewhere in the world, real jail time is involved. If government officials don't like their dirty deeds exposed or their policies questioned, they just turn to a handy new set of laws predicated on a term no one can define.
Daniel Funke at Poynter catches up on the story of Cameroonian journalist Akumbom Elvis McCarthy. McCarthy sent messages detailing brutal acts by law enforcement and the military, warning that the government treats reports of abusive behavior as "fake news." His call-out of the government's dismissive behavior towards its own problems was greeted with charges -- and six months in jail -- for disseminating "fake news."
A military tribunal charged McCarthy, a journalist for private broadcaster Abakwa FM Radio, with attempted secession, disseminating secessionist propaganda and false news, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. For almost a month after his arrest March 20, he was kept in a small cell in Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest region of Cameroon.
He shared food, water and a toilet with about 30 other prisoners. He slept on the floor. He made a pillow out of plastic water bottles.
“My imprisonment experience was horrible. I spent almost a month on a floor,” he said. “I was persistently going though brutalization in police (custody). I still suffer from a toothache that was (beaten) by a security officer while I was in a police cell. No one was allowed to visit me.”
Trailing only Egypt in the number of journalists jailed for fake news charges, Cameroon's government is no one's idea of democratic and fair. But the addition of fake news to the oppression toolkit has just given abusive governments one more way to abuse their citizens. Cameroon's government has turned its military into a weapon deployed against its own citizens, and anyone questioning that -- or pointing out the military's brutal acts -- is being purged from local media.
The head of English news at a private TV station in Cameroon, Mimi Mefo Takambou, was jailed on "fake news" charges. She was taken from the station by the military, which wanted to question her about reports of Cameroon soldiers killing a missionary, destroying houses, and slaughtering farm animals. She refused to answer their questions. With the military running both the tribunal and making the accusations, Takambou had zero chance of prevailing.
[Military prosecutors] deliberated for an hour, which became two hours, which turned into three hours. Finally, they told Mefo that she would be going to prison on pretrial detention — and they refused her bail.
All told, Takambou only spent four days in jail. But the military is getting the message across for the government, which has chosen to dismiss anything it doesn't like with the term "fake news," which is enforced by the military's kangaroo courts. As she had pointed out in previous reports, the government claimed the military didn't execute women and children despite there being video recordings of this happening.
Laws using ill-defined terms to govern speech are bad news for everyone but the governments enforcing them. The same holds true for similar legislation pushed in countries with more open minds towards free speech and not at the complete mercy of their militaries. Actual harm can still be done over fake news. Legislators need to steer away from the temptation to regulate something it can't define.