Roundup: East-West Center International Media Conference 2018

Janil Puthucheary, Singapore’s Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Communications and Information, being interviewed by Singapore journalists. (Photo: East-West Center)

More than 300 journalists from across the Asia-Pacific gathered to discuss the theme “What is News Now?” at the East-West Center’s International Media Conference in Singapore in June. Rebecca Inoue-Palmer sums up some of the themes that emerged for Asia.

US as a role model for media freedom — for better or worse

Michelle Guida

United States Assistant Secretary of State Michelle Giuda said the state of US press freedom was “in good shape”. (Photo: East-West Center)

United States Assistant Secretary of State Michelle Giuda spoke on her government’s efforts to “tackle disinformation at home and abroad”.

Giuda said the US remained committed to press freedom and freedom of speech. She outlined her government’s work empowering journalism in the region, including through citizen journalism and media literacy workshops in Southeast Asian countries.

But moderator Donna Leinwand Leger, former managing editor of USA Today, queried Giuda on Trump’s use of the term “fake news” to describe coverage that he didn’t like – a tactic used to undermine the media.

Giuda responded: “The president has been very clear in calling out unfair or inaccurate news when he sees it.”

The fact that journalists and others were able to have an open debate about press freedom, and US people were able to make decisions, showed the US was “in good shape”, she said.

But Giuda faced repeated questions from journalists in the room about whether the US could still claim to be a role model for media freedom while Trump was president.

Tom Grundy, editor-in-chief of Hong Kong Free Press, remarked, “I think, in memory, and I speak for a lot of media leaders here probably, no one has done more to damage press freedom globally than the current US administration.

“This fake news narrative has been pounced upon by authoritarian leaders in places like Cambodia and Burma.”

Legislating against ‘fake news’

(Video: 2018 International Media Conference: Fighting “Fake News”, East-West Center)

In April, Malaysia passed a new law against the circulation of fake news. Those found to have spread false information were liable for fines of up to 500,000 ringgit (NZ$182,500) and up to six years in prison.

Then-opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad, himself a target of the law, promised to abolish it if he won the election. Now prime minister, he has instead promised to redefine it.

Singapore is also preparing new laws to tackle the threat of fake news – and its Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary joined a conference panel to discuss this work. Puthucheary is a member of the Singapore government’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, which held public hearings in March and is preparing recommendations.

He said the goal was produce a narrowly focused law with proportionate penalties. “It will be concentrated at the very egregious end of the spectrum.”

Singapore Straits Times Editor Warren Fernandez said the media would want to see the law narrowly defined to target the spread of deliberate and harmful misinformation. The law would need to provide space for legitimate commentary, opinion and satire. “We don’t want legislation that is so sweeping and so broad that it hampers.”

Professor Cherian George, of the Department of Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, said governments were often the main culprits when it came to spreading misinformation – and a government doing so was particularly harmful.

Any law “should not only apply to opponents of the state but should also apply to government itself”, he said.

Social media’s role in fake news

Facebook’s head of public policy in Southeast Asia, Alvin Tan, outlined the social media giant’s work to reduce the proliferation of deliberate misinformation. Facebook worked to close bogus accounts, block offensive content and expand its third-party fact-checking.

Among other statistics, Tan said 99.8 percent of Isis and Al Qaeda content was removed from the platform, and 583 million fake accounts had been removed at the point of registration globally during the last quarter.

But Hong Kong Baptist University’s Professor Cherian George said Facebook appeared to invest more resource in profitable countries, comparing Germany, which received relatively high resourcing, to Myanmar. “Myanmar is more dependent on Facebook than Germany is.”

Tan acknowledged Facebook had not been doing enough in Myanmar, but said the company was investing more resource in getting to know markets and cultural norms across Southeast Asia. It was in the process of hiring a public policy manager for Cambodia. 

From the audience, a journalist from Afghanistan said his news organisation had found multiple fake Facebook pages claiming to be that news organisation. “We are still unable to verify our page with Facebook.”

Machine-generated news stories

Caitlyn Chen, vice-president of Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent (owner of major platforms QQ and Weixin/WeChat), presented on the company’s AI newswriting software Dreamwriter.

Chen spoke in Mandarin Chinese and as she did so, real-time translation into English was displayed on a screen behind her. The software automatically adjusted the words in each sentence as she continued speaking.

Chen suggested the technology could be used to replace journalists when it came to repetitive tasks such as financial reporting or coverage of sports matches. That would free up journalists to conduct more in-depth reporting and interviews.

Chen was followed by Philippines journalist Maria Ressa, who asked the journalists in the audience whether they were frightened. “I want to know who will push Tencent to be accountable.”

Maria Ressa, Rappler CEO

Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler, was one of five journalists honoured at the conference for their courage and impact. (Photo: East-West Center)

Declining media freedom in Southeast Asia

Maria Ressa, CEO and executive editor of news site Rappler, was keynote speaker on a plenary panel, Undermining Asia’s Free Press. Rappler has won international awards for its reporting of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.

This year, Rappler has fought off attempts to have shut it down, facing accusations of foreign ownership, tax evasion and online libel in recent months.

Ressa described online harassment she had received through hashtags such as #presstitute and #ArrestMariaRessa; threats; and “patriotic trolling” – state-sponsored online attacks. “We’re still alive, every day that I’m publishing, I’m really happy.”

Ressa was one of five journalists honoured at the conference for their courage and impact.

Kulachada Chaipipat of the Southeast Asia Press Alliance gave an overview of the declining state of press freedom in the region. Myanmar had seen “rollbacks” in media freedom since the 2015 elections, with 19 instances of journalists facing legal action. The detention of two Reuters journalists had seen it come under the international spotlight. Tight security controls in Rakhine state and armed conflict areas hampered access to information.

Thailand, meanwhile, had experienced high levels of censorship under the military government since the 2014 coup, Chaipipat said.

Independent media organisations in Cambodia – “a country really going down the drain” – had experienced a string of shutdowns, and tight media regulations were in place ahead of the July national elections.

Ressa pointed to tech companies as the only ones able to help improve the press freedom situation in the short-term. “You now control the public space.”

– Asia Media Centre