Arrests in Morocco over fake coronavirus news

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Moroccan police arrested 12 people spreading rumours about the coronavirus, including a woman who used her YouTube channel to say the disease did not exist, authorities said.

“Fake news is the first cause of panic among citizens,” said Prime Minister Saad Eddine El-Otmai, comparing the spread of misinformation with the contagion.

Other people were arrested for opposing measures against public gatherings, urging people to ignore them, or saying a lockdown was implemented when it had not.

Government also approved a draft law governing use of social media, aiming to deter fake news and cybercrimes undermining public order and the economy.

Rights groups criticise Morocco for what they see as an increasing crackdown on free speech, including prison for people expressing dissent on social media.

The North African kingdom confirmed 61 cases of the coronavirus and two deaths. Most caught the virus abroad, but it has now started to transmit in Moroccan cities.

Government closed all mosques, schools, cafes and restaurants, as well as sports and entertainment venues and banned all international passenger flights.

The most recent arrest was of a 48-year-old woman taken into custody after denying the existence of the coronavirus on her YouTube channel and urging compatriots to ignore precautionary measures.

Another woman, in an audio recording widely shared on WhatsApp, said the tourist hub of Marrakech was under lockdown and warned people not to go there.

A man known as “Abou Naim” was arrested for “instigating hatred” and “undermining public order” after he recorded a video on social media criticising the decision to close mosques.

Cars with loudspeakers are deployed in Moroccan cities asking people to stay at home. Public transport, streets and market places have been disinfected.

A government fund created to upgrade health infrastructure and assist the most vulnerable economic sectors received more than $1.5 billion in donations.