The Tanzania government yesterday fired nine journalists for disseminating a completely fake story claiming that Trump had praised the Tanzanian president as an “African hero,” republished from a completely fake news outlet called the “Fox Channel.”
The article suggested Trump admired John Magufuli, the Tanzanian leader, for his hard ball techniques in advancing his agenda which many observers believe grossly oversteps the Tanzanian constitution.
The news got widely and quickly spread throughout Tanzania: It quoted Trump confirming that he had exempted Tanzania from his travel bans because of President John Magufuli’s strong-armed leadership:
“According to Trump, Tanzanians will not be restricted going to US and they will enjoy special treatment courtesy of President Magufuli.”
The article said Trump referred to Magufuli as his “namesake.”
(In an odd extension the article criticized the even more autocratic East African leader, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, as a “bad example” in contrast to Magufuli.)
Magufuli has imposed strict journalistic controls, whiplashed Parliament into doing nothing, and recently had a vocal critic jailed simply for casual remarks reported during a private meeting. He has so far encountered little public resistance to his questionably constitutional actions.
The Fox Channel is completely made up. Yet it’s slick and adopts the format of major U.S. newspapers’ digital versions giving it the appearance of a professional American digital media source.
The chief authority overseeing Tanzanian broadcasting told the BBC “that the station should have verified the information before broadcasting.”
The Fox Channel has changed its story several times since the BBC and Newsweek reported the controversy. According to the BBC one of the channel’s earliest versions claimed “that Mr Trump made the comments while signing an executive order excluding Tanzanians from a travel ban on African nationals ‘from countries where presidents are doing nothing and those [that] have declined to leave power’.”
The Tanzanian president actually enjoys widespread support at the moment, despite his extralegal actions. Tanzania is beset by serious corruption and endemic bribing at almost every level of society. Magufuli is seen as cutting through the institutional barriers that have preserved that corrupt system for so long.
But most western nations have been increasingly critical of Magufuli, going so far as to suspend aid. So it’s not surprising that local journalists would leap at any opportunity that suggests foreign powers now endorse Magufuli’s undemocratic actions. Fake News is so contagious and seemingly uncontrollable now that I wonder if we will ever recover “news” as we once understood it.
There’s a thread of good Real News in this. Despite Magufuli’s unpopularity abroad, Tanzanian officials refused to let the Fake News suggest otherwise.
The greater point, however, is that the firing of those negligent newscasters in Tanzania will not suppress the continued dissemination of this Fake News. At best it will simply inhibit it from happening, again.
So meanwhile thousands of Tanzanians continue to believe that they are exempted from the horrors of Trump’s immigration policies. Their false beliefs will be reenforced by the fact that Trump has been so far unable to implement most of his policy because of court injunctions. But that’s a complicated and technical point to most Tanzanians who now believe the reason is because their “strong-arm” president is admired by Trump.