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Miriam Sibanda

Former Zimbabwean journalist Miriam Sibada says fake news is chipping away some pillars of democracy in some societies at a time when citizen journalism has taken center stage in circulating true and false information. VOA Zimbabwe Service’s Gibbs Dube speaks with Madziwa about this and related issues.

Gibbs Dube (GD): What’s your take on media and democracy in times of disinformation?

Miriam Sibanda (MS): What I am seeing and finding very worrisome is the fact that there is so much information floating out there, but it is taking away from democracy. So instead of enhancing democracy, all this information - the fake stories, the disinformation - is actually working against us, and the media is no longer able to play its intended role which is to education, inform and entertain, because how do you educate your readership or your listeners when you are dealing with false information. What you are instead doing is racketing up emotions, you are denying people a chance to critically engage with issues, because the starting point is not solid as it were, because now there is all sorts of information there and unlike in the past where you read a story, listened to a news bulletin, you could make a decision. I think a lot of us now, your sixth sense tells you after you have read something, is to say, mmmmm, is this true, is this correct, and you find that you are having to fact check before you can decide or even pass on the information, to anyone or use it, for whatever purposes that you intend to use the information you are reading, an article or listening to an article, for. So as a result, its taking away from the intended purpose of democracy where you are supposed to make informed decisions. How do you make informed decisions, when you are being informed by lies, as it were.

GD: so now looking at filtering this kind of information, how do you tell that this is fake news? And for a common person, how do they do that?

MS: It’s not easy to tell. I’ll be honest with you, even myself, you know, a trained media person, I have fallen for fake news several time. But with time now, you learn, if it is a written article, you are checking for spelling mistakes, the grammar, the presentation, and once you pick those tale, tale signs…but there are others who have perfected the art of fake news, so you then have to go down to consistency – does this make sense, is it flowing? But sometimes you will find, some of the stories might not make a lot of sense, but they turn out to be true, and this is emanating from the fact that you also have, you know, this trend of citizen journalism, where people are seeing things and they are reporting on them, but they don’t know how best to do it, and sometimes the information is presented haphazardly, and there is the danger that you can mistake it for false news, when in actual fact it is true and factual, just not packaged right.

GD: So is there any way citizen journalists can may be used for the sake of enhancing democracy, and even common journalism itself, can it be used somehow, now, since you are saying that you know, you can no longer trust sources of news. So how can this be all integrated to come out with some truthful information, circulating out there?

MS: I think we have to go back to the basics, starting with those who are trained for the job, to just say, you know, address the 4 Ws and H, as best you can. And the citizen journalists, they need to be taught, they need to enhance their skills by reading and listening to those that are trained to do it. And I think the simplest starting point is just working with the truth. If it is two people that you have seen engaged in an accident, or in a fight, let it be two and not be ballooned to scores of people. You know those basics – if we start there, we are giving people the correct information and then from there, they can make informed decisions.

But I think there’s also need to just go all out to train our citizens on how to relay news or information, so that it benefits all of us, and just make people aware that lies will not help us at all.

GB: Going forward Miss Madziwa you know that it is very difficult to train everybody to understand the art of disseminating information. With everybody being a journalist, how best can this be done in order for people to get true information.

MS: I think it has to start with each individual just saying, you know what, I will try to tell this as best as I can, as truthfully as I can … Try and leave out the emotions, try not to exaggerate and just say this is what happened so that the other person gets the correct context and understanding of what it is you are talking about. And it is audios and video clips let they be clips that give context and meaning to what you are raising. That way I think we make a start but I think those of you who are still practicing, you have to take it upon yourselves to bring on board these citizen journalists and help them learn the art of telling a story and telling it as truthfully as possible. Let truth be the starting point and then the other details can follow later.

GD: Can politicians play any part in this kind of news dissemination in order for societies to get the truth out there?

MS: Yes, I think everybody has a role to play. With our politicians I think the starting point is just consistency in their messages because one of the things has to happen is the confusion from the minds of the reader arises from politicians who blow hot and cold depending on their audience. So, if politicians can be consistent in their message, we are not saying they should use the same words or whatever but the messages must be consistent so that if then they are reported to be saying something out of turn the readers and listeners can say hmmmmm this does not sound like our leader, doesn’t sound like the person we voted for and then they go out of the way to try and find out whether he was quoted correctly, the story was written in context. So, it really just starts being consistent with the messages they give out on the various issues that they decided to engage in or engage on.

Interview With Miriam Sibanda
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South Africa's Caster Semenya crosses the finish line to win the women's 1500m final at Carrara Stadium during the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia, April 10, 2018.

In one of the most ethically and scientifically challenging cases in modern sports law, two-time Olympic champion Caster Semenya lost her appeal of a rule that requires women to medically reduce their natural levels of testosterone in order to compete in certain track events.

Here is a look at the case that sports' highest court acknowledged in its 2-1 ruling Wednesday was discriminatory, but said the discrimination is “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to maintain fairness in women's track:

The rules

In April 2018, the governing body of track and field published eligibility rules in its races for women runners with “differences of sex development (DSD).”

Those women must reduce their testosterone to comply with IAAF rules for at least six continuous months before competing at top-level events.

The rules apply only to “conditions where the affected individual has XY chromosomes” — male chromosomes — it was explained Wednesday by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Those athletes “have testosterone levels well into the male range.”

The IAAF has said the rules “exist solely to ensure fair and meaningful competition,” and not to judge or question any athlete's sex or gender identity.

Put on hold by Semenya's appeal, those rules now take effect next Wednesday.

The IAAF's first attempt to address the issue in 2011 was rejected by a previous Court of Arbitration for Sport panel in 2015. That ruling challenged the IAAF to produce better evidence because it had not proven that hyperandrogenic women — women with excessive amounts of male hormones — gained a significant advantage.

South Africa's Caster Semenya takes a selfie with fans after winning gold in the women's 1500m final at Carrara Stadium during the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia, April 10, 2018.
South Africa's Caster Semenya takes a selfie with fans after winning gold in the women's 1500m final at Carrara Stadium during the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia, April 10, 2018.

Semenya’s defense

Semenya's lawyers argued that “her genetic gift should be celebrated, not discriminated against.”

Although testosterone — a hormone that strengthens muscle tone and bone mass — is a doping product if injected or ingested, no one has suggested Semenya's natural physiology is a form of cheating.

Semenya's case was championed by United Nations human rights experts and women's sports activists, including Billie Jean King, who saw potential for abuse and discrimination against women.

South Africa's ruling African National Congress party linked Semenya's cause to the liberation struggle of Nelson Mandela and, on Wednesday, accused the IAAF of “acting in a prejudicial manner.”

The judges

The judges from Canada, Australia and Switzerland scrutinized evidence, including testimony from Semenya, over five days in February in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The nuanced verdict was detailed in a two-page court statement expressing concern about some evidence underpinning the rules and how they will now be applied.

The judges believe some women who choose treatment with medication will have difficulties staying within with the limit and face bans for “unintentional non-compliance.”

The IAAF said Wednesday it “will keep all practical matters of implementation under periodic review.”

In this photo taken April 27, 2019, South Africa's athlete Caster Semenya competes in an event at a meeting in Johannesburg.
In this photo taken April 27, 2019, South Africa's athlete Caster Semenya competes in an event at a meeting in Johannesburg.

Behind the ruling

The judges' full 165-page verdict remains confidential, and contains sensitive medical information.

A six-page executive summary published Wednesday clarified the judges' majority opinion without detailing the evidence.

The ruling derives from the premise that separate men's and women's races were created due to “insuperable performance advantages derived from biology.”

From there, “it follows that it may be legitimate to regulate the right to participate in the female category by reference to those biological factors rather than legal status alone.”

The case appeared as if it would likely sway on scientific evidence rather than a concept of fairness, and one expert witness called by Semenya's team questioned the data.

”In the absence of really compelling evidence, something discriminatory is not justifiable,” South African academic Ross Tucker told The Associated Press. “I don't see good science having been followed here.”

Semenya’s future

The CAS judges paid tribute to “Ms. Semenya's grace and fortitude throughout this process.”

She will potentially run her final international 800-meter race on Friday in Doha, Qatar, when the Diamond League series opens.

If she wants to defend her 800-meter world title in September — also in Doha — she must begin medicating within days. The IAAF requires affected athletes to give a blood test by next Wednesday within the set limits.

With the world championships opening on Sept. 28, the IAAF said it will waive the 6-month compliance rule for that event.

Semenya can run without medication in the 5,000 meters — or possibly in the 1,500 if the IAAF follows the judges' guidance to defer applying the rules to that event. Semenya won a bronze medal in the 1,500 at the 2017 worlds in London.

There is no indication the IAAF will do that.

What next?

Semenya and the South Africa track federation have 30 days to appeal to Switzerland's Supreme Court in Lausanne.

Federal judges rarely overturn CAS decisions but can intervene if it's determined the legal process was abused.

Semenya could request an interim federal ruling to freeze the CAS decision pending a full appeal.

With the IAAF rules under permanent review, other female athletes could one day challenge them.

“I can say this decision is certainly not the perfect one,” CAS official Matthieu Reeb said, “but is there a perfect decision in this situation?”

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