What’s the best to way deal with fake news? Should TV and radio give equal airtime to every candidate in a presidential election? And how can we be sure journalists themselves have the highest ethical standards?
These were some of the serious issues discussed at the international conference on Democracy and Freedom of Expression held in November 2019 in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Journalists and experts from Zambia, Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia and Lesotho joined their Malawian counterparts to forge plans to strengthen the media in their countries.
Everyone agreed that fake news is a major problem across Africa, with political activists and foreign powers accused of spreading lies via social media and messaging platforms.
Media literacy is limited and fact-checking can be very difficult, so rumours spread fast – that could mean anything from fake ballot papers appearing online, to politicians appearing to receive endorsement from religious leaders or even US President, Donald Trump.
Journalists and campaigners for free speech also say the prevalence of fake news has given governments – for example in Tanzania – an excuse for what Reporters Without Borders calls “draconian legislation” and “an unprecedented decline in press freedom.”
Thomson Foundation consultant Derek Ivens led discussions about how newspapers, TV and radio can identify and report the truth in fair and balanced ways when covering elections.
“Voters need accurate information so they can make informed choices about their country’s future, he says. “This won’t happen without strong, impartial media outlets and professional journalists who can analyse the issues and hold candidates to account."
“Voters need accurate information so they can make informed choices about their country’s future.”
The UK’s High Commissioner in Malawi, Holly Tett, spoke about the media’s key role in democracies, despite “a new and dangerous global trend of journalists being targeted simply for doing their jobs.”
Delegates returned home with plans to draw up stronger ethical and editorial codes, and to make sure their political coverage reflects the needs of voters, not just those of the ruling elite.
They also understood that the UK supports their efforts to create a dynamic, independent media in Africa which stands up for the truth.
The conference in Malawi builds on the momentum from the Global Conference for Media Freedom in London in July, 2019.