The role of media and civil society is much more important now than ever before, not only to cover the pandemic but also to ensure transparency in the public debate about the government’s responses and actions to this health. How can we ensure that people are correctly informed?
Strengthening the role of independent media and civil society, and the promotion of accurate information and media literacy at both local and national levels are critical elements in the fight against the infodemic in the time of COVID-19, journalists and rights advocates in Asia agreed at an online seminar on 14 April 2020.
Speakers at the webinar, titled “How to handle COVID-19 infodemic in Asia?”, said the role of media and civil society was much more important now than ever, not only to cover the pandemic but also to ensure transparency in the public debate about the government’s responses and actions to this health crisis and the states’ governance in exercising their powers and implementing those measures.
The seminar, organised by Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) Thailand, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), Thai Health Promotion Foundation, and civic-action initiative - ChangeFusion coincided with the official launch of Cofact.org Thailand. The collaborative fact-checking initiative is modelled after Taiwan’s civic and tech community fact checkers’ Cofact in order to fight the spread of online disinformation in Thailand.
The regional online discussion comes on the heels of growing concern over the impact of disinformation and hate speech, triggered by the pandemic and the effective management of the outbreak and the pre-existing conflicts confronting countries in the region. Governments of Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea have already applied state of emergency measures in varying degrees to address the pandemic. They are raising fears that these measures will be disproportionately applied to curb free speech and undermine people’s right to privacy.
In the Philippines, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) had issued 17 summonses over so called “fake news” posts as of April 2. Indonesian police, empowered with “the state declaration of national disaster”, are clamping down on online expression, targeting not only statements that cause social chaos or fear disruption, but also the ones that attack the government. Thai authorities have already charged a Facebook user who criticised the government’s airport control measures as inadequate, and banned journalists from covering incidents during the curfew hours.
Joining the online discussion were Ms. Marites Vitug, Editor-at-large of the Philippines’ social news network Rappler, Mr. Premesh Chandran, CEO and founder of Malaysia’s online news site Malaysiakini, Mr. Endy Bayuni, senior editor of Indonesia’s national English-language daily The Jakarta Post, Ms. Supinya Klangnarong, Co-founder of Cofact.org, Dr. Christian Taaks, Head of FNF Korea and Adam Cooper, Senior Programme Manager on Cyber-Mediation of HD.
The discussion, moderated by Frederic Spohr, Head of FNF Thailand and Myanmar, centred on the response to the outbreak by the governments and society, including the media and how they have been dealing with the disinformation issues so far.
In Thailand, the spread of disinformation in the health sector had long been problematic prior to COVID-19. According to Klangnarong, the current situation was worsening because of the government’s initial unclear communication about its response to the outbreak, which left the public confused and caused misunderstanding and resistance in some sectors.
While the government’s communication has greatly improved, Klangnarong said it was necessary for society to have a non-partisan community of fact checkers comprising civil society, media and individuals to help with the communication. “I disagree that the government should be the centre in fighting „fake news“ (as it is now), although the government holds the right to reply as far as their policy and its implementation regarding the handling of the crisis is concerned,” she said.
In the Philippines, Vitug called it “the perfect storm” facing journalists as they cover the COVID-19 outbreak, fight disinformation and defend free speech. Quite similar to Thailand, Vitug said a lot of disinformation was about the cure for the coronavirus. Among the four categories of disinformation she pointed out—which include disinformation about politicians, government response, information that sows fear and discrimination—the more troubling one was the source of false information coming from President Duterte, his health secretary, and his spokesperson. There were a lot of false claims coming from this trio, mainly to legitimise the government’s handling of the health crisis. For example, Duterte claimed he had warned about the coronavirus at the start where, in fact, he had said the Philippines had low coronavirus infections.
The editor said the fact checking community’s response was active and vigorous in fighting against the information disorder. There are already two media organisations that have taken the lead in this endeavour in collaboration with Google, Rappler and Vera Files. The fact-checking Facebook community, run by civil society in collaboration with Vera Files, had also been active long before the virus outbreak. However, she said that concern remained about the disinformation that was spreading through messaging apps, which is not public.
In Malaysia, Chandran said media and civil society have vigorously played their part in holding the government accountable for the policies and actions to address the health hazard, including attempts to control online expression in the time of COVID-19. “There [was] a lot of online activism and push back from the civil society against the government’s policy responses so that the [latter] had to retract certain measures,” Chandran said. The public also did their part in sharing accurate information about the pandemic. The Malaysiakini’s CEO said the concern now was the media’s capacity to cover the news about the pandemic and fight the infodemic. He said the media had already suffered financially prior to the pandemic and that the limited access to government sources due to the restricted movement measure in fighting the pandemic in Malaysia had hampered journalists from questioning politicians and policymakers face to face.
In Indonesia, the spread of disinformation about COVID-19 is less acute than the situation in 2019 during the general elections where the society was divisive and polarised. Rather, Bayuni said the government was actively working alongside private organisations to stamp out hoaxes and fake news. According to the editor, the Ministry of Communication and Information reported 1,096 postings about COVID-19 between January 23 and April 6. Facebook took down 303 out of 759 posts. Twitter and Instagram did the same, removing 53 out of 321 messages and 3 out of 10 messages respectively. Editors in different news rooms informally shared information about the pandemic and cross-checked to ensure accuracy of the information before publishing it on their news outlets. Bayuni said it was necessary that the media strictly observe its code of ethics and professionalism now to ensure the accuracy and balance of information gathered, and to hold the authorities accountable to the public.
In South Korea, disinformation about the pandemic did not have much impact on the society thanks to the government’s quick and consistent communication with the public. Dr. Taaks said local governments also had their own websites and blogs that were sending out messages to the public every day. According to him there was also a joint fact-checking initiative, hosted by the South Korea National University in partnership with the government’s Center of Disease Control, trusted media outlets working to debunk fake news about COVID-19.
“The key to the success of the government in coping with the crisis is the 4Ts which are transparency, testing, tracking and treatment that won the public trust,” he said.
Adam Cooper from HD said he was deeply concerned about the rise of hate speech on social media in the time of the COVID-19 outbreak, which was not only unique to this region but also across the globe.
Cooper noted that there had been a disproportionate focus by the government and the public in addressing the impact of such an infodemic on pre-existing conflicts and little international policy attention to the spread of hate speech and discriminatory statements targeting minorities and religious groups in conflict-inflicted areas or regions. “It is likely that this has a serious potential to exacerbate the pre-existing conflicts and tensions,” he said, adding that “it would not be surprising to see the increasing use of a reference to this virus as the Muslim disease, and the trend is likely to increase in coming weeks”.
To address this information crisis, he suggested the promotion of accurate information. Use of the information kits provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an authoritative source in the mainstream media and ranking it more highly in the news was one of the ways. Using local language content that is made relevant to the conflicted areas, and cooperating with local organisations, which are deeply trusted by the local people, to spread accurate information would be a creative approach, Cooper added.