The Centre for Independent Journalism is a non-profit organisation promoting media independence and freedom of expression in Malaysia.
Today, 3 May 2020, marks World Press Freedom Day, an event that has been organized annually since 1993, and which presents an opportunity for journalists to band together with government authorities, academics and civil society representatives to discuss challenges to media freedom and the safety of journalists. This day is an opportune moment for the public to better understand the challenges our journalists face on the job, such as harassment over their reports and discrimination over their organization.
The emergence and spread of COVID-19 have created a global public health crisis that, in just a few short months, has created a huge impact on the world and our lives, as we mitigate through social and physical distancing and try to contain public alarm. As stated by the World Health Organization (WHO) director-general, we are fighting an “infodemic” explosion. What this means is that the need to understand the rate of contagion, patterns of transmission and means of combating the pandemic has now overtaken our priorities.
Both information and disinformation have shaped how we understand and respond accordingly. In this situation, it is all the more critical that we have access to news and information that we trust and can help in understanding the crisis and what is required to protect ourselves, as well as independent information on how our government is responding to the pandemic.
During this pandemic, media personnel are also among the frontliners and face exacerbated risks of infection due to the nature of their jobs – all the more reason that a safe and enabling environment is guaranteed for the media to function and carry out their critical role to publish freely, keep the public fully informed and hold the State accountable.
It is in this context that we ask the question – what is the role and future of the media in Malaysia?
Given the high volume of research and information flow on COVID-19, media industries and communications channels have become more critical than ever in promoting adaptive responses that foster appropriate approaches to health and hygiene practices and adherence to preventive and mitigating measures. It should be noted that the scope of media coverage also sets the agenda for public discourse and support towards policy measures undertaken by the government. Thus, there is a high expectation that the media would be fact-based and responsible in their reporting.
This year, Malaysia ranked 101th on the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). This showed Malaysia going up 22 spots following last year’s ranking of 123, which was also an exponential spike since 2013. The latest change in position was attributed by RSF to the change in government in 2018, following which journalists and media outlets that had been banned were able to be accessed once again in Malaysia. RSF observed a more relaxed general environment for journalists, a decline in self-censorship and more balanced reports in the print media. Nonetheless, it was also noted that while there was greater media freedom during Pakatan Harapan’s administration, the government did not fulfil its election pledge to repeal or amend repressive laws affecting freedom of expression and speech.
With the change in government in March 2020, through means that were questionably undemocratic, it remains to be seen how the current government will fare in next year’s ranking. Given the previous Barisan National’s track record, we do not hold much faith in commitments to reform, amend and abolish draconian and repressive laws, including those that impact press freedom.
In a nutshell, it can be said that the media in Malaysia is in the midst of combating multiple threats, including: financial crisis, restrictions by the government and an increase in disinformation or “fake news”.
The media, at present, is experiencing a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there is increased media consumption due to the Movement Control Order (MCO) issued by our government and the heavy reliance on news providers for timely and reliable information. This spike in numbers, however, is also to be balanced with the fact that the common broadcast contents, such as live sports or entertainments, are being postponed or canceled.
On the other hand, the media, especially traditional print media, already facing financial difficulties before the Covid-19 pandemic due to migration of readers to digital online news, a deficit in advertising revenues and paid online subscriptions, are suffering all the more now due to reallocation of spending by advertisers and dwindling income of subscribers, leading to drastic drops in income for media companies.
The media giants may survive slightly scathed. However, we are already seeing a worrying trend of major downsizing even before we were hit by COVID-19. In December 2019, media conglomerate Media Prima Berhad announced a “manpower rationalisation” exercise which resulted in the redundancies of staff from the New Straits Times (NST), Berita Harian (BH) and Harian Metro. This decision by Media Prima came soon after the closure of Utusan Malaysia1It was later announced that Utusan Malaysia will be relaunched in 2020 to “help disseminate information on the government’s policy implementation”. In January this year, it was announced that Utusan Malaysia, under new management Media Mulia Sdn. Bhd., was set to recruit new staff to resume operations later in the year. Read more about it here: https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2019/11/537045/utusan-will-return-2020 & https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/508257, one of Malaysia’s oldest papers. Since then, there have been increasing reports of newspapers and other publications closing down or reducing the number of times it prints in a week amid the pandemic. The Edge Financial Daily printed its last issue on 21 April 2020, citing the pandemic as the reason it is unable to survive. Oriental Daily is only printing on weekdays from 1 May 2020 onwards and Sin Chew Daily stopped printing its night edition copies from 1 April 2020 onwards. All three were impactful papers within their own target audiences. It was also announced that publisher BluInc Media Sdn Bhd, well known for its magazines such as Cleo, Jelita, Marie Claire and HerWorld, ceased operations due to challenges arising from the digital disruption and COVID-19.
The way forward
What is clear is that the media can no longer rely on traditional means of revenue and business models. It is key that the industry will need to rethink and re-envision a new business model to ensure the sustainability of media outlets affected by the current trend in their revenue deficit. Not doing so risks seeing media freedom being impacted should more alternative sources of news be forced to close down.
In the interim, certain financial assistance, such as tax incentives, short-term loans or government advertising, among others, could be considered to enable media outlets to stay afloat during this crisis. Notwithstanding, these should be short-term to ensure it does not damage the credibility or independence of the media, or become tools for the government to exert greater control over the media towards propaganda and censorship.
Another move to consider, as initiated in a number of countries as well as by the Malaysian Newspaper Publishers Association, is to find ways and means of getting multinational technology corporations such as Google and Facebook to share advertising revenue generated through content from local media outlets.
The role of the government is to promote democracy and allow dissenting voices to be heard and accessed, even if they are critical of policies or alleged mismanagement on the government’s part. The right to know and seek as well as impart information and ideas of all kinds are protected under international legal guarantees of the rights to freedom of expression and speech.
Media freedom in Malaysia, historically, has been largely restricted by partisan politics and repressive laws and actions by the government of the day that undermined media independence and freedom of expression and speech. We have yet to enact a right to information law, and repressive laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), the Official Secrets Act (OSA), the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) among others, continue to be utilised, at times arbitrarily, to stifle media freedom.
Since coming into power and increasingly so during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government’s attempts at silencing dissenting voices and undermining media freedom is signaling the downwards spiral of Malaysia into an inconceivable authoritarian and undemocratic regime. Censorship and attempts to control the public narrative are rife based on recent statements from the new government threatening to take stern actions against online news portals that “misreport” the news.
Threats such as this could lead to misguided and disproportionate actions being taken against media institutions and reporters, which not only would be counter-productive in shutting down flow of information and related public discourse that is crucial in dealing with public health issues, but also inadvertently lead to the media self-censoring and toeing the government’s line so as to retain its license and its market.
We have already seen reporters experiencing racists and gender-based harassment online for their reporting, including Malaysiakini reporter Koh Gah Chie. Tashny Sukumaran of the South China Morning Post (SCMP) is also called in for questioning by the police under Section 504 of the Penal Code and Section 233 of the CMA for her recent article on the mass arrests of undocumented migrants in Masjid India. This is a move to silence critical media attempting to publish actions by public authorities which may be viewed as a breach of international human rights commitments.
Furthermore, we are also seeing a shrinking of spaces for media to report independently due to restricted or denial of access. In a number of instances, access to certain press conferences by ministers providing COVID-19 related updates was limited to just a few “official media”. On 7 April 2020, the Prime Minister’s Department issued an official media invitation to a press conference following the special ministerial meeting on the implementation of the MCO, but limited access to live coverage only to Bernama and RTM. This trend of restricting and allowing access to only government media agencies creates a situation that only one-sided news or perception will be available for the public’s consumption.
Court reporters are also not allowed to cover court proceedings due to stricter measures under the MCO; only videographers and cameramen are allowed inside court premises. Instead, reporters are forced to wait outside the premises and get their information and a copy of the charge sheet from the lawyers representing the accused, and if they are lucky, the deputy public prosecutor (DPP). If not having direct access to information continues to become a norm, journalists risk misquoting or are not able to present neutral and reliable information.
These scenarios are deeply troubling because the public has a right to know what transpired and be able to form their own opinion based on multiple sources of information, and any censorship and control of media platforms by the government will create an information vacuum.
The way forward
It is fundamental that media freedom and freedom of expression as enshrined in our Federal Constitution and other international human rights standards are upheld by the current government. This includes promoting informed debates as fundamental to informed decision-making, and, as such, critical views must not be censored or criminalised – especially in times like this, and with a new government in power. The government of the day should also move towards enacting a right to information law and repealing or amending repressive laws such as the PPPA, the OSA, the Sedition Act and amending Section 233 of the CMA so that these laws are not utilised arbitrarily to stifle all manner of speech.
Any measures taken to tackle COVID-19 and has the potential to restrict media freedom must be legal, necessary, proportionate and temporary with the aim of mitigating the immediate public health crisis. The government must work with the media in ensuring fair and equal access to all media outlets and platforms to all timely information related to the crisis. Journalists and news portals must be allowed the space to scrutinise and be critical, if necessary, of the government’s position or action.
Misinformation and disinformation (“fake news2“Fake news” is an oxymoron as news, as such, cannot be fake. The focus should be in understanding the distinct differences between “misinformation” and “disinformation” and the actual intentions behind spreading this kind of information. Misinformation is generally understood as mistakenly or inadvertently creating and spreading false or inaccurate information without malicious or manipulative intent to deceive. Disinformation can be understood as deliberate and systemic attempts with clear intent and design to manipulate and sway peoples’ thinking through propagated, false and dishonest information.”)
Malaysian media, similar to others globally, is being inundated with the polarisation of perspectives, the politicisation of vital information, partisan propaganda and disinformation. This is a serious threat to credible and reliable information on the pandemic in that it has serious consequences on the lives of public and related social and economic impacts.
On what appears ostensibly to fight disinformation, the Information Department recently uploaded an infographic3The Information Department’s official Twitter account, lists the following as fake news. Information that (unofficial translation): brings down the dignity and image of an individual, the reputation of an organisation and the country; instils hate towards the ruling government and leaders; relates to the infrastructure of critical information about the country; involve teachings of extremists beliefs; touches on the sensitivity of religion and race, and; contains elements of pornography, gambling and lies. that imposed what appeared to be the government’s definitions of what “fake news” entails and its negative impacts. The dangers of generalising and listing the alleged “types” of “fake news” alludes to tactical attempts by the government at cracking down legitimate speech aimed at crushing dissent or differences of opinion or disproportionately restricting various forms of expression. The vague and ambiguous interpretations entailed in the infographic is prone to create a climate where media outlets are increasingly in fear of “stern action” being taken by the authorities in the event their news is deemed as “fake news” by the government, who acts as the sole arbiter of what constitutes misinformation or disinformation. This is already exemplified through the attempts at intimidation against Tashny Sukumaran (South China Morning Post) and Melissa Goh (Channel News Asia). This adds to the risks that the measures adopted by the government to counter this could now lead to further surveillance, invasion of privacy and censorship, and, as is the practice in Malaysia, lead to criminal prosecution.
In addition to the threat of severe actions by the government, we have also seen many myths, rumours, falsehood and propaganda that have made its way into publications and broadcasting. By large, it is encouraging that key media outlets have published practical information and services available for vulnerable and marginalised groups, including COVID-19 tracking platforms, essential telephone numbers for healthcare and shelter services and hygiene practices in multiple languages and using infographics. However, media platforms are also a common mode of propagating falsehood – for instance, on live television recently, Health Minister Dr Adham Baba touted drinking warm water as a means of “killing the virus”. This creates immense confusion amongst the masses as the WHO has debunked this as a myth.
The media’s role in combating misinformation has never been more critical. The massive “infodemic” brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic is potentially a deadly explosion of misinformation, not just in Malaysia, but also globally.
Disinformation and propaganda are also increasingly spiraling into gender-based, xenophobic and racist bias, prejudices and hate speech. In the last week alone, we have seen growing attacks against migrants, Rohingya refugees and human rights defenders protecting the rights of these marginalised communities. Viral memes, chain messaging, videos and virulent attacks are being channeled through social media platforms and apps. Disinformation purveyors are also propagating these falsehoods through articles published in certain media.
Most disconcerting is the fact, well-entrenched even before the COVID-19 pandemic, of the dangerous consequences of the disinformation crisis, which is the potential of having the public downgrading their trust in all information from their regular media because it is becoming more difficult to discern facts from falsehood, legitimate findings from fraudulent ones, and overly partisan content from critical independent journalism.
The way forward
As the scope of media coverage sets the agenda for public discourse, there is a high expectation that the media would be reliable, avoid partisan narrative, be fact-based, responsible, balanced and ethical in their reporting. It is essential to reinforce the role of verification through multi-sourcing, independent fact-checking and digital media literacy for all journalists.
The media has a key role to play in refraining from and preventing the perpetuation of misinformation and disinformation by strengthening independent fact-checking and channeling fact-based news in a timely and analytical manner, including updates by public authorities during this public health crisis. This is critical in countering any myths or misleading facts on the spread of the virus or on related state measures.
Reporters, editors and publishers must collectively be responsible and aware of the growing sophistication of disinformation tactics, including fraudulent sources, faux experts, inauthentic social media accounts, corrupted datasets and fake publications that aims to promote certain rhetoric, political agenda or propaganda.
Quality journalism is vital, and focusing on public service and social responsibility is fundamental for the media outlets in surviving these turbulent moments. In a time of massive misinformation and disinformation, media entities must consider collaborative measures, including with civil society experts, on independent fact-checking initiatives. Investing adequate resources and learning from the good practices across the regions will be useful, including on how the public can access or even participate in this initiative.
As we move towards envisioning a future of strengthened and independent media we must also focus on the need for a transparent and independent self-regulatory body such as the proposed Media Council. The Media Council, in providing an avenue for arbitration of public complaints, would be instrumental in building confidence in the media and contribute to the credibility of news media organizations by upholding international standards.
3 May 2020
The Centre for Independent Journalism is a non-profit organisation promoting media independence and freedom of expression in Malaysia.