Pacific news journalists grapple with challenges of social media, harsh laws

PINA vice-president (2018-2020) Katalina Tohi (left) and Media Association of the Solomon Islands (MASI) president Charles Kadamana at the PINA Summit in Tonga last month. Image: PINA

BRIEFING: By Geraldine Panapasa in Suva

Like it or not, social media has become part and parcel of almost everyday discussions.

Whether it’s talk about the economy or the latest development and trends, large and influential platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and LinkedIn have become the go-to source for news and information.

Add technological advancements and accessibility to the mix, and one is left with a digitally-empowered society and a media industry grappling with a number of challenges such as fake news, citizen journalism and in some cases, harsh legislation.

Legislation that can either be viewed as a way to clamp down on journalists or to some extent, limit one’s constitutional freedom of speech, expression and publication, or it could be legislation driven by genuine concerns to ensure news and information are accurate, fair and balanced.

The advent of social media, its impact on journalism and the transforming political situations that are evidently changing the way the media operates in the Pacific were at the heart of the discussions at last month’s 5th Pacific Media Summit organised by the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) in Nuku’alofa, Tonga.

The May 7-11 event, attended by more than 100 media practitioners and stakeholders, also highlighted other pertinent issues relating to the theme, “Empowering the Media for Digital Challenges”, such as climate reporting; social media impact on financial literacy, women empowerment and the environment; international humanitarian law; gender and the digital media; the role of the media in fighting corruption; and dealing with threats against the media.

But the biggest concern by far was dealing with the change that social media brought in terms of the traditional dissemination of receiving, consuming, sharing and interpreting news and information.

Overlooking checks
The opportunities for social media users to maximise on the platforms to freely exchange information and news, often at times overlooking the checks and balances that journalists practise, have become a concern for some regional governments, who have openly advocated for legislation that curbs the deliberate act of spreading misinformation or hoax messages through traditional forms of print and broadcast news.

Take for instance, Fiji’s highly-controversial Online Safety Act 2018, which recently became law after being passed by Parliament with 27 votes on May 16. It aimed to promote responsible online behaviour and online safety as well as act as a deterrence of harmful electronic communication.

To a large extent, the Act addressed cyberbullying, cyberstalking, internet trolling, and exposure to offensive or harmful content, particularly for children. Public submissions to the Standing Committee on the Online Safety Bill included one from a former media personality, Lenora Qereqeretabua, who felt it was a tactic to scare online users rather than try to develop capacity for responsible online behaviour and online safety.

Another submission to the Bill, from the Media Watch Group in Fiji, emphasised the right to responsible free speech for Fiji citizens, saying this was a fundamental component of a truly democratic society and a must for a developing island nation in this growing digital age.

Recently, the Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Maleilegaoi threatened to ban the social media network Facebook in Samoa after what he described were “gutless anonymous bloggers” using the freedom of social media to abuse government officials and innocent members of the public.

Papua New Guinea followed suit last month by considering to block Facebook as a result of alleged defamatory publications, fake news, identity theft and unidentified users breaching the law in terms of posting pornographic materials and fake news.

During the summit in Tonga, PNG Acting Secretary for the Department of Communication and Information, Paul Korni, did not mince his words when he told participants that they would not hesitate to enforce legislation that monitored social media such as Facebook if it meant putting a tight lid on the dissemination of “fake news” and other alleged defamatory publications.

Cyberspace arena
World-renowned digital technology activist Dhyta Caturani from Indonesia put things into perspective when she made a strong statement at the summit about the internet and new media platforms that made it possible for people to do and say things that were not possible for them before in this new arena – cyberspace.

In terms of fake news, governments, civil society and even the media are still battling this issue. And one point Caturani raised was uncovering the reasons or intentions behind fake news.

This, Caturani believes, is key if media and stakeholders were to address the issue of fake news, finding the motivations and intentions of fake news and putting the fire out through due diligence and fact-checking information before publishing or broadcasting news.

She said some fake news were churned out by irresponsible internet users while others used fake news to propagate political interests or agendas – a notion shared also by senior journalists in the region when it came to identifying the purpose of fake news.

“Why has this (cyber) space now become heavily monitored, regulated, surveilled, censored and our data being stolen from us without consent or sold, not to mention the online violence?” she asked during her keynote address at the opening of the summit.

“The answer is profit. With millions of people now connected to the internet, with billions of information and data published, the capitalists realised that the internet is the new source of making limitless profits.

“The other answer is fear. Those in power realised that the internet has now become a tool for people to challenge those in power and abusing power to disrupt the status quo and to demand freedom and equality.

Censorship a global trend
“We now see censorship as a global trend. Governments all over the world are copying one another to pass draconian laws that will give them the legitimisation to censor any content, any expression, any voice published online. Some governments even shut down the internet entirely.”

Veteran journalists from Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga shared similar concerns about the fake news trend in relation to the challenge for the media in a digitally-empowered society – that fake news and social media platforms had given rise to “citizen journalism” and the circulation of unverified information, and analysis of news by the general public on popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and that journalists and media stakeholders needed to adapt to this “new normal” or “seismic change” while maintaining their integrity and ethics.

It’s a new form of journalism that continues to grow.

Journalists Association of Samoa president Rudy Bartley said this was a challenge for journalists and media workers.

“It’s either you adapt or die. There are a lot of fake news circulating and those issues, without social media, would never have happened,” Bartley said.

Long-time PNG journalist Joseph Ealedona said they were very critical of new media and its impact on the future of journalism. While they welcomed the change in the way news and information were disseminated, the concern was maintaining journalistic integrity and ethics.

Vital solution
In the midst of these challenges and debates about new media platforms and its impact on journalism in the region, Tongan journalist Kalafi Moala summed up perhaps a vital solution when he shared his concept in dealing with this trend.

“Instead of monitoring these, we need to continue to educate people to tell the truth. It is telling the truth and authenticity that will expose the fake. I have never seen new media, social media as a threat to journalism at all. I see it as an extension of the media when it is used properly,” Moala said.

These media trends and practices continue to play a vital role in terms of getting news out first and in real time. The onus is more or less on journalists and media workers to adapt and embrace these current media practices without compromising their ethics and code of conduct as the fourth estate.

Geraldine Panapasa is editor-in-chief of Wansolwara newspaper with the University of the South Pacific journalism programme. This is a special report for Asia Pacific Report.

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