In an unexpected statement on Monday morning, Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Michael Masutha said the state would be making arrests today for unethical reporting crossing the line with the thin excuse that today happens to be April 1.
His spokesperson said South Africans had for too long been victimised by so-called fake news, and it was time to draw a line in the sand, to make it clear there will always be consequences for false reportage, as ill-considered humour can damage lives irreparably.
Media lawyers have warned South African journalists that just because it’s April 1st, they should still be careful with spreading fake news.
“Laws against libel and defamation of character are still very relevant and journos should not think they are immune simply because of the date.”
Masutha said: “Already there have been nonsense stories about craft beers and rugby-playing zebras,” adding that his department had once been victimised by an April Fool’s joke – if it was okay for Malusi Gigaba to change visa rules because of something that had once happened to him, then Masutha could change the laws unilaterally to put an end to fake news, once and for all, he said.
One such story published about his ministry had led to the deaths of 11 prison inmates, who’d got wind of a story that the department of correctional services was implementing a “happy hour” at prisons, and that anyone who managed to escape between 5pm and 6pm would be considered free forever in an effort to deal with overcrowding.
“These jokes are killing us,” Masutha told journalists in Pretoria.
“April 1 has been the godfather of fake news … Many once-promising journalists were lured to the dark side after writing their first April Fool’s article, realising they got way more clicks and attention for it. The next thing you know, they’re sitting at a content farm in Macedonia, writing about how Khanyi Mbau has 13 toes. That’s ridiculous! We know she only has 12!”
He added that new legislation, which he would ensure was passed before the end of today despite parliament not even being in session, would see journalists either fined R100,000 per fake story, or imprisoned for a year, without the option of being encouraged to escape.
Contacted for comment, the SA National Editors’ Forum said they endorsed the idea, as jailing journalists would be preferable to the retrenchments most of them are currently facing, since nobody wants to pay for news any more.
“At least this way they can be assured of at least one meal a day,” they said in a statement.