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EVER SINCE THE World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, Zaim Aiman Ibrahim, a Penang-based journalist for The Malaysian Insight, has found himself stopped at an increasing number of police roadblocks – both in Penang Island and on the mainland – when on his way to meet with informants (and keeping to the practice of social distancing), many of whom are government officials and healthcare workers. He has been tasked to report on how the deadly virus has been affecting the livelihood of Penang’s many communities. Getting accurate and credible information on this fast-evolving and far-reaching crisis, has become a matter of life and death. In a sense, this has become Zaim’s new normal.
“This is a new situation for all of us – being on the streets, reporting on an unknown and an unseen enemy,” says Zaim. “The only thing we have on for protection is the face mask, but some journalists do also wear rubber gloves. You won’t know if you’ve been infected until the symptoms show, but by then it may be too late.”
“It is our families that we are most worried about. Having to treat yourself like a stranger in your own home isn’t fun, but it needs to be done for the safety of our loved ones,” says Seth Akmal, a photojournalist at The Malaysian Insight. He recalls driving down the deserted streets of KL, photographing closed shops, abandoned supermarkets and empty hotel bars. “We have been learning from past epidemic-scale crises, including SARS, Nipah and Ebola to ascertain the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Malaysians.”
Armed with sheer tenacity and curiosity, journalists must now solely rely on instinct in lieu of proper guidelines that are in place in order to report on the latest developments. “We are guided by the Malaysian Press Institute’s code of ethics, but at this point in time, when a crisis is at hand, a revision is very much in order,” says Akmal. Financially too, things are looking grim for the journalists. “The pandemic is reminiscent of what happened to Utusan Malaysia and Media Prima last year, when they laid off hundreds of employees.” Akmal says that the fear of not having an income is much greater than the fear of the pandemic itself.
Fighting Fake News
After being tipped off that visitors to a shopping centre in Seberang Perai had to undergo Covid-19 screening, following news of two suspected Covid-19 carriers within the premises that went viral on social media, another challenge soon emerged for the journalists: to fight the spread of fake news. “We’re not just fighting an epidemic, we’re fighting an infodemic,” says Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, adding that fake news “spreads faster than this virus”.
Armed with sheer tenacity and curiosity, journalists must now solely rely on instinct in lieu of proper guidelines that are in place in order to report on the latest developments.
“People seem to prefer fake news rather than information from professional newsrooms,” says Zaim. According to the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia, an average of three to five pieces of “weird news” related to Covid-19 have been appearing daily since the virus was first detected.
In a bid to contain locally-manufactured pandemic-related fake news, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission launched an official Telegram channel for the portal last March; and in 2017 the fact-checking portal sebenarnya.my was introduced for Malaysians to verify news and information they received through various channels, especially social media. The popular mobile messaging application Whatsapp also introduced a new limit to the number of messages that users can forward. Messages that are identified as highly forwarded can now only be forwarded to one person, down from five.
But the proliferation of many other social media platforms and messaging apps, through which information can go viral almost instantaneously, cancels out the abovementioned initiatives. Fact-checking sites also offer little help, since many believe them to be just another platform endorsing the government’s version of the truth.
As a last resort, the authorities have been using specific regulations and laws, e.g. Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, as grounds for arrests of citizens who are liable for creating and disseminating fake news; in fact, similar laws are an often-preferred measure for many governments in Southeast Asia. In Malaysia the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 that was introduced by the Barisan Nasional government was repealed five months later by the Pakatan Harapan government.
Be that as it may, the measures taken by the government in fighting fake news have heightened concerns among journalists and local civil society groups, who worry that such actions may eventually lead to the undemocratic practice of censoring fair and critical comments from the public; this refers expressly to the definition of "fake news" that has been widened to include and criminalise legitimate criticisms against the government and its policies.
Journalists, including photojournalists, are still looking for the right words to use and the best way to frame their stories in order not to stoke fear.
It now falls to professional journalists to save the situation, but in times of crisis, keeping Malaysians up-to-date becomes a much bigger challenge. Covid-19 has not only changed views on personal hygiene, but also the words used to describe the pandemic as well. “Since the government announced the MCO, journalists have been using different terms to refer to the movement restrictions. Many use ‘lockdown’, while some use ‘quarantine’ and ‘self-isolation’,” says Zaim. Combatting fake news for journalists also means managing readers’ emotions, as fake news can all too easily breed fear. Journalists, including photojournalists, are still looking for the right words to use and the best way to frame their stories in order not to stoke fear.
Most local mainstream newsrooms, as providers of immediate-term solutions, are doing their utmost to debunk fake news by publishing the list of viral fake news on their respective news portals, as well as collaborating to share and cross-promote stories. This also enables newsrooms to pick up on good information from other news sources and to avoid re-reporting the same stories. Such efforts have been successful in countries like the US. The long-term solution will be to provide the public with media literacy education, which many Malaysian news portals have begun to do.
Rebuilding Trust in Mainstream Media
The global pandemic has heralded a new reality for the journalism field. Though with no end in sight just yet, there is nevertheless signs that faith in local mainstream media has been somewhat restored. “People have begun to rebuild their trust in us, especially independent newsrooms. But this is a gradual process,” says Akmal. “Equipped with media passes, only professionally-trained media practitioners are allowed to be on the front line to inform Malaysians about the goings-on of the outside world as best we can.”
But the explosion of the number of business-driven blogs and amateur news portals, and the popularity of Twitter and Facebook are still the biggest challengers to good journalism. Being able to balance between business and social responsibility is a necessity, urges Zaim. “The public needs to be more critical, be wise and know how to process the information they read, especially on social media.”
Izzuddin Ramli is a Kelantanese-born analyst at Penang Institute. He is a writer who seeks refuge in Penang, and agrees with Rumi that the Earth is not our home, we are just passing through.