The right to freedom of expression is well-entrenched under our law. It has been described as “a sine qua non for every person’s right to realise her or his full potential as a human being”, and lies at the heart of any democracy. As has been explained by the Constitutional Court, the right to freedom of expression is valuable for many reasons: “its instrumental function as a guarantor of democracy, its implicit recognition and protection of the moral agency of individuals in our society, and its facilitation of the search for truth by individuals and society generally”.

In this regard, the constitution recognises that individuals in our society need to be able to hear, form and express opinions and views freely on a wide range of matters.

However, the right is not absolute, and may be subject to justifiable limitations to safeguard other competing rights and interests. In the digital era, the dissemination of disinformation online poses a significant threat to public discourse.

As highlighted in the joint declaration on freedom of expression and “fake news”, disinformation and propaganda, this is fueled by both state and non-state actors, and is designed and implemented to mislead a population and interfere with the public’s right to know, as well as the rights of individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas.

In addition to being misleading, disinformation can also result in various other harms. It may damage individual reputations and privacy, or incite violence, discrimination or hostility against groups in society. It can undermine public trust and confidence in credible sources of information, and cause anxiety and panic among members of the public who are unsure of what information contains independently verifiable facts.

If people are unable to make informed decisions, not only are they at risk, but the very basis for a democratic state is threatened.

It was for this reason that Media Monitoring Africa, together with a range of partner organisations, launched the Real411 platform, as a mechanism for members of the public to report concerns of disinformation to be assessed and verified. Originally launched as a joint initiative with the Independent Electoral Commission during the 2019 general elections in SA, the platform was relaunched earlier this year to address disinformation beyond the election period.

With the rise in the spread of disinformation regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, such a platform presents a unique and important opportunity to address disinformation in an open and transparent manner. On April 15, the department of communications and digital technologies announced that it would be collaborating with Real411 to curb the spread of disinformation pertaining to the pandemic.

Importantly, the Real411 is underpinned by the following five guiding principles:

  1. First, it seeks to strike an appropriate balance with the right to freedom of expression, as contained in section 16 of the constitution, which must be respected, protected and promoted. This includes a recognition of the importance of robust engagement and debate, which may include ideas that shock, offend or disturb.

  2. Second, the measures adopted are also cognisant of the nuances of speech, and seek to distinguish between disinformation on the one hand, and other forms of speech such as journalistic, artistic or satirical expression or opinion, on the other.

  3. Third, Real411 does not create any new criminal offences or criminal sanctions. It works solely within the existing legal and regulatory frameworks. To the extent that certain forms of disinformation may rise to the level of criminalisation, this is to be addressed by the appropriate authorities in terms of the law.

  4. Fourth, transparency and accountability are key to the mechanism of Real411. Notably, all complainants are kept up to date on the process once a complaint has been lodged, and all outcomes are published on the Real411 website.

  5. Fifth, engaging with stakeholders is recognised as being essential to the efficacy of the implementation of this initiative. In the development and roll-out of Real411, discussions have been had with, among others, the SA Human Rights Commission, the Press Council of SA, the SA National Editors’ Forum. and social media platforms.

Further to the above, the integrity of Real411 lies in the process that has been adopted, which combines good practices from other jurisdictions to develop a framework that is reliable and credible. Complaints are assessed by three reviewers — one with technical expertise, one with media expertise and one with legal expertise — to make a determination of whether the subject matter of the complaint meets the criteria for mis- or disinformation.

To meet the necessary threshold, regard is had to whether the subject matter of the complaint is false, inaccurate or misleading; whether the information could be reasonably construed to cause public harm; and whether there are any overarching public interest considerations in the continued publication. Once the complaint has been reviewed, it is finalised by a member of the secretariat, who are practising lawyers. This includes regard to the appropriate recourse that may be necessary, such as bringing the complaint to the attention of the relevant social media platform to take any further steps.

The outcome of the complaint is also brought to the attention of the complainant, and the outcome is published on the Real411 website. The outcomes are further shared on social media, to assist in educating members of the public to recognise false content. In addition, Real411 has an appeals process that is led by former acting deputy chief justice Zak Yacoob.

The Real411 initiative is significant for a number of reasons. First, rather than housing the complaints portal within the security services — which may have a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression — it is run by a civil society organisation that has a strong history of protecting and promoting free speech.

Second, bringing together voluntary reviewers with established technical, media and legal expertise is also novel, as it serves to ensure that the findings are properly informed by all relevant factors and different perspectives.

Third, it emphasises the need for transparency and accountability, and seeks to deal with all complaints in a manner that is reasonable and justifiable. And lastly, it is the product of a consultative process that has brought together a range of stakeholders to give effect to the initiative.

As states around the world continue to grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic and the hampering effect that disinformation has on such efforts, Real411 continues to work towards ensuring that the SA discourse is one framed by credible and reliable information, debates and engagement. It is imperative that we work together to curb the spread of disinformation that is borne out of malfeasance and a desire to mislead.

It is only through continued collaboration that initiatives such as Real411 can be effective and meaningful. The public has the right to demand accurate, credible and reliable information on matters of public importance, and should not settle for anything less.

• Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa, which runs the Real411 platform and serves as the secretariat for the initiative.  Singh is an attorney and director at ALT Advisory, and a member of the Real411 secretariat. They write in their personal capacities.

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