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Sharing info about Covid-19 not a crime in South Africa – but sharing false info is

This article is more than 4 years old

A message doing the rounds on WhatsApp has South Africans worried about what information they can and can’t share on the platform. 

“Mandate To All Residents. Tonight 12 ( midnight) onwards Disaster Management Act has been implemented across the country,” it reads.

“According to this update, apart from the Govt department no other citizen is allowed to post any update or share any forward related to Coronavirus and it being punishable offence. Group Admins are requested to post the above update and inform the groups.”

The message shows a screenshot of an eNCA TV news broadcast. Text at the bottom of the screen reads: “WhatsApp group admins may be held legally responsible for messages in group chats.”

To help reduce the spread of Covid-19, on 13 March 2020 South African president Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act. But does this mean South Africans can no longer share information about the novel coronavirus? And can WhatsApp group admins be held legally responsible for messages in group chats? 

Hoax message started in India

The message has all the hallmarks of a hoax. It contains no specific details, such as the date that the Disaster Management Act will be implemented or the country it refers to. This gives the message longevity and makes it relevant almost anywhere. The poor grammar and construction of the message is another tell-tale sign. 

A Google search revealed a number of fact-checking articles by Indian news organisations. This message originally started doing the rounds in India in early April 2020 and has been rated as misleading. 

Although India’s Disaster Management Act of 2005 was invoked to address Covid-19, it does not contain any provisions prohibiting people from sharing information related to the disease. The same goes for South Africa’s Disaster Management Act of 2002.  

Moreover, there have been no reports by credible news organisations about the Act and its restriction on sharing information about the coronavirus. This would have been news covered widely in the country. 

The South African government has said that “anyone that creates or spreads fake news about Covid-19 is liable for prosecution”, but this does not mean people are not allowed to share any information about Covid-19 at all. 

What are the rules for the administrators of WhatsApp groups?

WhatsApp admins should distance themselves from harmful content

It is true that WhatsApp admins could be held liable for messages shared in group chats. But this is not new. During an interview with talk radio 702 in 2017, social media law expert Emma Sadleir said that South Africa had seen many cases where administrators have been held responsible for content.  

“The law in South Africa is where you are able to stop something from being published or where you’re able to dissociate yourself from that content and you don’t, then you are responsible,” she said. 

When someone shares something controversial, obscene or illegal in a group, Sadleir advises WhatsApp admins to actively distance themselves from that content. “You have to say, this isn’t okay, this isn’t acceptable on our group or remove that person from the group which is something you’re able to do as the administrator.”


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