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Need for honest dialogue as fake news gains ground

Sonia Ambrosio - -

The spread of fake news brings an extra concern to the already loaded press freedom dialogue. Even though it is not a new phenomenon, it is now spreading fast around the world, which has prompted the United Nations along with organisations from Europe, Americas and Africa to issue a joint statement expressing concern over the use of fake news for government propaganda and to curb press freedom.

The document advocates that states have a positive obligation to promote a free, independent and diverse communications environment, including media diversity, which is a key process of addressing disinformation and propaganda.

At another level, Northeastern University and Harvard University co-hosted a conference on fake news and how to combat it. Experts ranging from scientists, psychologists to social media gurus, journalists, and political scientists gathered at Harvard’s law school to share their knowledge and decide what can be done to stop the flow of misinformation.

For Gordon Pennycook, a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at Yale University, the more people are exposed to fake news, the less they are able to discern what it’s fake. Steven Sloman, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University, said that people don’t think very much: mostly they channel the knowledge of those around them.

With fake news and rumours taking centre stage in the process of (mis)information, there is a need for an honest dialogue and a redefinition of press freedom, which suffers from a combination of familiar censorship tactics applied in novel ways, as shown in ‘Attacks on the Press’, the 2017 Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report.

Trends on curbing freedom of information can be hidden behind a democratic veneer, including elections. It can also be masked under political control on suppressing hate speech and incitement to violence; the most insidious trend is the use of technology capture to spread confusing information through propaganda, false news, rumours and half-truths.

Every year, May 3 is a date that celebrates one of the fundamental principles of journalism. The international day proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993, evaluates press freedom around the world and pays tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.

This year, under the theme of ‘Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies’, participants will meet in Jakarta to examine the current challenges facing media, including the continuous trend of attacks against journalists. In its 2016 report, CPJ registered 259 media professionals jailed worldwide, making it the highest number recorded.

Journalists around the world are stifling coverage of hard news and investigative stories because of the circumstances on the ground; when thinking about pitching a story, one inevitably ends up thinking about safety first. Death sentences, intimidation, arrests, imprisonment and the killing of media professionals are not new — but like it or not — the situation is just getting worse.

For Ulla Carlsson, the director of Nordicom at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, critical and independent journalism is becoming an endangered species. ‘Critics are not Criminals’ is a campaign the CPJ launched to push for the decriminalisation of defamation laws around the world. Laws that permit journalists to be prosecuted for the content of their reporting are considered to present a hazard to freedom of the press and to the right of citizens to be informed, says a CPJ report on a comparative defamation laws study

So, if for one, the growth of fake news is gaining ground along with tongue bite indifference for verifiable information; for the other, media professionals are being curtailed from doing their work. This paradox gives predators of press freedom a chance to suppress the media on the pretext of fighting false information, says the Paris-based media freedom agency Reporters Without Borders.

This existential crisis points to a threat to relevance and the usefulness of journalism. As Ronald Regan once said: “It is not what people don’t know that is dangerous; it’s what they know that isn’t true that is dangerous.”

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