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Fake news label threatens leaders’ credibility

Public officials often excoriate journalists for peddling what they call fake news. Indeed, this era of US president Donald Trump, gave currency to the term as he turned on American media, particularly New York Times, Washington Post and CNN and referred to their content as fake news.

This served as a green light to African leaders, most of who have no cordial relationship with the media. In Uganda, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has, particularly in his later years, had a frosty relationship with most media houses in Uganda. He, for example, has not had much good to say about the Red Pepper. Those familiar with the magazine might say that the media house should have seen it coming.

But it is not just Red Pepper that has been in the president’s cross hairs. Security officials in Kampala have shut down several television and radio stations.

Not too long ago, a TV station was shut down in Kampala for the simple mistake of showing the president having a catnap in public. The then government spokesman said the president had only been meditating deeply and the TV station was, therefore, in the wrong to misconstrue such mediation as catnap.

In the last couple of weeks, Museveni has been in the news courtesy of now famous crooner, MP Bobi Wine. The musician-turned-politician had been arrested in Northwest Uganda together with other politicians and allegedly beaten senseless while in custody. Prior to their arrest, the politicians had been energetic running across the region campaigning for a candidate in a by-election.

But by the time they were being produced in court a few days later to answer to treason charges, they could hardly walk. Bobi Wine was in crutches and pain. In response, Museveni said accusations that Bobi Wine had been beaten while in prison was simply fake news. So, what is fake news?

Journalism needs to define this term. Conventionally it would seem to mean the transition or writing of narratives that are simply not true. But it seems that its use by high-placed politicians is simply to mean the publication of narratives that do not portray them in the light they prefer. However, how gullible do these politicians expect the public to be?

In the case of Uganda, discerning members of the public saw the transition of Bobi Wine from a vibrant musician turned a revolutionary matching the streets of Kampala. Characterising his later appearance in a nearly disabled state as fake news does require the public to be gullible. Indeed, the institution in danger of losing credibility in this case is not the media but the office of the president.

Simply for the sake of the dignity of his office the presidency needs to understand that telling the public the truth is the simplest of ways of maintaining the dignity of that office. Propaganda, however appealing, is a slippery slop that will eradicate any little credibility such a dignified office may have remaining.

Trump may get away with characterising sections of the media as fake for a while. This is because of the high niche orientation of the American press and the unique political environment in that country, with viewers of Fox channel hardly viewing anything else and are thus gullible to propaganda. But circumstances elsewhere are different and leaders elsewhere risk eroding credibility of their offices if they blindly copy Trump on this practice. –Writer is the Dean, School of Communication at Daystar University