by Frederico Links

IT appears many people need reminding that under the health regulations in place to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, people can be criminally charged and fined for spreading pandemic-related falsehoods.

A short video of provocative figure Michael Amushelelo making all sorts of false claims about the Covid-19 vaccines and in which he clearly discourages people from going to get vaccinated has been circulating virally in WhatsApp groups lately.

Amushelelo is not the only prominent personality that has been making false claims about the Covid-19 pandemic or vaccines on social media recently, as even media personalities and media organisations, such as Windhoek-based talk radio station Eagle FM, have been publishing or broadcasting vaccine-related falsehoods and conspiracy theories over recent months, since around the time the vaccine roll-out started in mid-March.

But while people like Amushelelo and entities like Eagle FM can probably afford to pay the fine for spreading falsehoods, others might not be able to and could end up with prison sentences.

The tide of Covid-19 vaccine-related disinformation that we’re currently seeing, as we ride an already devastating third wave of the pandemic, probably serves as an indication that many people have forgotten about the regulation (32(2) of the Public Health Covid-19 General Regulations) that criminalises the spreading of Covid-19-related mis- and disinformation.

PREVIOUS REGULATIONS

Under the state of emergency regulations – the Covid-19 state of emergency was in place from mid-March 2020 to mid-September 2020 – people who spread false information about the pandemic could be criminally charged and fined N$2 000.

The state of emergency regulation which criminalised Covid-19-related mis- or disinformation stated that a crime was committed by someone who “publishes, through any form of media, including social media – (i) any false or misleading statement about or in connection with Covid-19; or (ii) any statement that is intended to deceive any other person about the Covid-19 status of any person or measures to combat, prevent and suppress Covid-19”.

According to figures provided by the Namibian Police, between mid-April 2020 and mid-September 2020, 164 people were arrested and charged with spreading Covid-19-related falsehoods.

Fifty-four people were charged with publishing a “false or misleading statement about measures to combat, prevent and suppress Covid-19”, while 110 people were arrested for publishing a “false or misleading statement about the Covid-19 status of any person”.

In other words, for the five months that the regulation was in place, an average of 32 people per month or a person per day was arrested for spreading Covid-19-related mis- or disinformation.

NEW REGULATIONS

When he announced the amended Public Health Covid-19 General Regulations put in place from 17 to 30 June 2021, health minister Kalumbi Shangula indicated that health and law enforcement authorities “would explore the possibility of spot fines” for those who spread Covid-19-related falsehoods, including vaccine-related falsehoods.

According to the Public and Environmental Health Act of 2015, under which the Public Health Covid-19 General Regulations have been in place since late September 2020, a person found guilty of spreading Covid-19-related mis- or disinformation could be fined up to N$100 000 or sentenced to jail for up to 10 years, or be sentenced to both a fine and a jail term.

Based on what the health minister has said, it seems unlikely that people will be jailed for spreading falsehoods, but people could be saddled with hefty fines, which many might not be in a position to pay.

To be clear, regulation 32(2) of the Public Health Covid-19 General Regulations states: “A person commits an offence if that person, through any form of media, including social media, knowingly or without having taken reasonable steps to ascertain the correctness of any information – (a) publishes any false or misleading statement about the Covid-19 status of any person; or (b) publishes any false or misleading statement, in connection with measures to combat, prevent and suppress Covid-19 as specified in and under these regulations.”

While the regulation might be questionable and open for challenge in the context of the constitutionally enshrined right to freedom of expression, it seems clear that health and law enforcement authorities are going to take a much harder stance going forward against those who spread Covid-19-related falsehoods.

* Frederico Links is the editor of Namibia Fact Check, which is a project of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). Namibia Fact Check can be viewed at www.namibiafactcheck.org.na

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