SOUTHEAST ASIA: Time for a Pushback in Media Spaces

(Second of two parts)

Digital, online and social-media avenues undoubtedly offer an alternative or complementary channel for news, because of the inherent difficulty in censoring these spaces. Their wide reach and levels of engagement have saved lives during disasters or emergencies.

But the entry of online media and social media raises questions far beyond ‘freedom of the press’ and ‘freedom of expression’. It also calls for self-introspection by the media, as well as sectors ranging from the legal profession, academics, civil society and consumers, about how to keep the trust of a more discerning public in a not-always-friendly information environment.

How can societies – well beyond governments – handle the manipulation of information while maintaining the space for professional media to do their work? How do we deal with governments or leaders and their allies who use online spaces and create ‘news-looking outlets’ to act not only as public relations machines, but instruments of confusion? Is it possible to set a norm of what is considered decent, more civil behavior in the digital sphere, including setting norms that could make being paid to be a troll or a cyberwarrior for hire, an undesirable service?

Discomfort

How do societies nurture consumers’ skills to evaluate the content they come across, algorithms of Facebook or not, and not accept hate speech and distortion of information as normal and part of ‘free speech’? How do we teach audiences, including digital natives and young people, to be discerning users and sharers of information?

When the media history of these times is written, this may well be the time when media and news consumers in Southeast Asia are coming to terms – with much discomfort – with a changed information environment they thought they knew – but actually did not.

“ ‘Traditional’ media had gatekeepers who checked and verified sources according to a code of ethics and standards. Not perfect, but workable, said the Philippines’ Cecilia Lazaro, a veteran broadcast journalist known for having her team’s investigative newsmagazine programs and a former professor at the University of the Philippines. “The addition of social media to the media landscape changed the traditional vetting process. SocMed (social media) users are their own gatekeepers who determine their own standards as they see fit,” she said in an email interview. “While it has democratized access, it has opened opportunities for abuse and manipulation on a large scale not possible in the past.”

In Myanmar, the easing of media controls in 2012, as part of the country’s reforms after decades of military rule, was soon accompanied by a jump in internet and mobile phone access and use. This made room for freer reporting in an environment where self-censorship continued, along with the legacy of journalists’ hesitance to challenge state authorities, and the continued existence of laws that could be used against media work.

Soon after social media picked up, people “moved on to social media, which can get not only news but also distribute their own stories without (an) editing process,” explained Zin Linn, consultant editor of Burma News International (BNI), a network of independent media organizations that was formed in 2003.

“So it (social media) allows false and fake news freely. As a result, restrictions like 66 (d) take place,” he said in an interview. Clause 66 (d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Act allows up to three years in jail for “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network”, and has been used against journalists.

“Without differentiating between professional journalists and unreliable newsmakers on social media, the authorities take action by using restrictive laws,” he explained. These include Article 505-B of the Criminal Code, the 1996 television and video act and the 1996 computer science development act, the 2004 electronics transactions law and the 1923 Official Secrets Act, he said.

“So nowadays, press freedom and freedom of expression in Myanmar is falling down due to constitutional crisis,” Zin Linn pointed out.

At present, discussions are emerging about laws to curb or stop the production and distribution of fake news. A Philippine senator has proposed one such law and Malaysia’s government has a special committee to look into legislative measures on fake news, but rights advocates warn that these are too easily used to tighten the noose on media.

But focusing on such approaches may also be too parochial. This is because social media and the digital space know no geographic borders, although there are recent examples of how global giants are being called to account for their practices online.

Global and Local Accountability

The role that social media, including Facebook, played in skewing the popular discourse in the United States’ 2016 election – February saw the US special counsel’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities on charges of interfering in the country’s election and political processes – confirm this as well.

The European Union has been putting the pressure on Facebook. The European Commission has a 39-member High-Level Expert Group on Fake News, comprising journalists, media experts, academics and representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google.

In 2017, Facebook was fined 110 million euros by the European Union for giving misleading information about its acquisition of the WhatsApp messaging service.

France’s data protection watchdog fined Facebook 150,000 euros for collecting data on internet users’ browsing activity on third-party websites without their consent. Regulators in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain are undertaking similar investigations, news reports said.

In February 2018, the multinational company Unilever, a top global advertiser, threatened to pull out its advertising from digital platforms like Facebook and Google if they do not clean up fake news, racism, and extremism.

These hold rich lessons for Southeast Asia to mull over, and might offer ideas for what kind of legislation and regulation may lie ahead.

Several countries have cybercrime laws that have not done much to address the financing of fake news or troll armies or to take global digital giants to task, but these have instead been used to undermine legitimate media work.

The legislative measures needed to penalize and dismantle the architecture of online disinformation are those that plug “large gaps in Philippine campaign finance legislation and digital platform regulation”, said the report ‘Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines’. Released in February, the report was written by Jonathan Corpus Ong of the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the United States and Jason Cabañes, from the University of Leeds, Britain.

Nop Vy, media director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), believes that social media are still an “advantage” to news media especially in restricted environments. “It is not always creating difficulty for media protection. But I think we should be smarter to respond and support this (social media) increase rather than just creating laws to pressure and narrow down freedom of expression,” he said.

The Philippines offers a somewhat different case study. Especially over the past year, President Rodrigo Duterte has balked at criticism of his war against drugs and media outlets’ “unfairness” in reporting about his government, among others.

He has publicly accused ABS-CBN news network and the ‘Philippine Daily Inquirer’ newspaper of twisting his statements. In November 2017, media reports said businessman Ramon Ang completed a majority buyout of the ‘Inquirer’ after the family that founded it 25 years ago opted to pull out.

Of late, the headlines have been the Philippine government and the relatively young media site Rappler, which Duterte has called an entity “fully owned by Americans”, “a fake news outlet” and one “whose articles are rife with innuendoes and pregnant with falsity”.

On Jan. 11, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued an order revoking the incorporation papers of Rappler Inc for violating the constitutional requirement that Philippine media be fully owned and controlled by Filipinos.

The SEC said that a provision in the Philippine Depository Receipts (PDR) held by the US-based Omidyar Network Fund LLC, which requires Rappler “to seek approval of the PDR Holders on corporate matters”, gave a degree of control to the group. It said that Rappler Holdings Corp, the 98.77 percent stockholder in Rappler Inc, was created to circumvent the constitutional limits on media and to allow it to receive foreign investment.

Rappler, which describes itself as a “social news network”, called the SEC order a politically motivated “kill order” coming after the President’s repeated criticisms. It has appealed the decision before the Court of Appeals. (On 28 Feb, Omidyar Network said it had donated the PDRs it has held in Rappler since 2015, totaling 1.5 million US dollars, to the organization’s 14 Filipino managers. The effect of this development on Rappler’s legal standing, if any, remains unclear after the PDRs had earlier been voided by the SEC).

There has since been a tit-for-that exchange between officials around the President and Rappler’s executives and journalists, including, of course, in social media.

Amid news reports about a presidential adviser’s role in the selection of weapons systems for the navy’s warship program, Duterte ordered that Rappler’s reporter be barred access to covering presidential events. On Feb 19, the ‘Inquirer’ issued a statement disputing an allegation by the said adviser, Christopher Go, that its reports on the issue were fake news. “The Inquirer adheres to the principles of fairness and accuracy in its news reports,” the paper said, adding that it has documents from reliable sources.

Self-introspection

Away from the din of these battles, the clouds hovering over freedom of media and expression in Southeast Asia demand a degree of self-introspection by media and users of information. Professional media need to do a pushback by bringing groups together to talk about and developing smarter, updated ways of defending space for media and nurturing audiences’ trust in and attention to the professional standards of the news industry.

These standards must include not only accuracy and ethics and adherence to the structure and discipline of processing news, whatever the medium and including born-on-the-web outlets. They also include the capacity to not become so lost in, and unquestioning of social media’s culture, that they fall into the trap of equating viral content and Facebook’s dopamine hits with credibility and quality journalism.

Along with encouraging citizen journalism and pushing for legal reforms to ensure media freedom, “we need to continue to build the capacity of journalists to be professional,” CCIM’s Nop Vy said. “The media owners and editors (need) to take further responsibility toward media ethics with valid news sources,” added Zin Linn of BNI.

Meantime, discussions are emerging around the need to nurture a culture of maintaining a free and open internet where vibrant and genuine discussions can be held, even with conflicting opinions.

These range from exploring ways, other than Facebook and social media, of distributing news or engaging with audiences, to brushing up on fact-checking skills, as more journalism sites are doing in Southeast Asia. Elsewhere, there are tools such as the new ‘Field Guide to Fake News and Other Information Disorders’, produced by the First Draft project at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

It is time to widen the meaning of ‘media literacy’ to include the consumption of information in the digital sphere, the strengthening of critical thinking, a better understanding of our digital identities, and digital security. These need to find their way into journalism curricula and training courses?

It may also be time to look into where and how concepts like libel and slander fit given today’s online discussion venues, where publication is no longer only in a physical venue and where the posting of information acquires permanence and searchability in cyberspace long after. The Philippines’ Supreme Court has upheld the existence of online libel, which is classified as a cybercrime under the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act.

This is where the battle for media freedom and free expression need to be fought, with new tools in a changed environment.

“There is growing discussion within mainstream media of what has become an unquestioning reliance on social media, especially Facebook, to deliver their content, seeing how algorithms have sidelined legitimate, vetted information they produce,” Chua said.

Others believe that social media’s popularity among media will settle down. “Facebook is now facing saturation. The honeymoon/getting-to-know-the-medium period is over,” said Gerry Lirio, head of the investigative team at ABS-CBN news in Manila.

At the same time, new challenges lie ahead, including in Myanmar, where the proximity of the 2020 general election is seeing political groups prepare to use online spaces to their benefit.

“People oppose arrest of professional journalists who do their work in line with democratic values,” Zin Linn explained. “But member there were fake journalists (assigned by the former dictators) to damage the media image. By using FB, those fake journalists produced fake and false news to disgrace the current democratic government apart from the military-run sectors.”

Should clashing factions use ‘media’ tools to sow disorder in the political landscape, “professional journalists may be sandwiched between political rivals ahead of 2020”. Zinn Linn said: “In brief, Myanmar journalists have to face grave dangers after mid-2018 to 2020.”

Here to Stay?

“There is no doubt that individual social media users can spread hate speech, troll other users, or set up automated political communication campaigns,” according to the December 2017 report ‘Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation’. “Unfortunately, this is also an organized phenomenon, with major governments and political parties dedicating significant resources towards the use of social media for public opinion manipulation,” said its authors, Samantha Bradshaw and Philip Howard, of Britain’s Oxford University.

In authoritarian regimes, it tends to be the government that funds and coordinates propaganda campaigns on social media, the report said. In democracies, it added, political parties are the primary organizers of social media manipulation.

The organization of cyber troops in many countries will continue to evolve, but the report said “it will likely remain, however, a global phenomenon”.

Perhaps this is just a difficult juncture in history when it comes to pluralism and space for media in parts of Southeast Asia.

But the time has come to step out from the echo chamber that digital politics can be, and revisit the long, costly struggles it took to get on the path of piecing together the elements of a democratic system and media freedom, warts included.

In the Philippines, the 1986 ‘People Power’ revolt just marked its 32nd year in February. Cambodia’s post-conflict reconstruction in the nineties was meant to give it a fighting toward development. After more than five decades of military rule, Myanmar is in a troubled trajectory, but the international community, as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, would not want to see it unravel.

Johanna Son is the founder and editor of the Reporting ASEAN media program. This post originally appeared in the Heinrich Böll Stiftung website.

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