Journalism is Not a Crime…and Fake News on Social Media is Not Journalism

the global pandemic has been used by many governments to control not just the people’s movement but also their right to information. Journalists have been intimidated or attacked, and photojournalists and videographers on the frontlines often risk getting infected while documenting stories.

By Namrata Sharma
KATHMANDU, May 1 2020 – This year’s World Press Freedom Day on 3 May falls during COVID-19 lockdowns in many of our countries. Restriction on movement means journalists all over the world are facing obstacles in getting interviews and data, and verifying stories before publishing.

In addition, the global pandemic has been used by many governments to control not just the people’s movement but also their right to information. Journalists have been intimidated or attacked, and photojournalists and videographers on the frontlines often risk getting infected while documenting stories.

Two recent webinars conducted by Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) and Finance Uncovered (FU) showed that recent government moves to restrict the press in Nepal are not unique – they are happening in many countries around the world.

The global pandemic has been used by many governments to control not just the people’s movement but also their right to information. Journalists have been intimidated or attacked, and photojournalists and videographers on the frontlines often risk getting infected while documenting stories

There have been efforts by authorities to criminalise journalism, and this is putting journalists reporting on the pandemic at risk, noted Courtney Radsch of the Center to Protect Journalists at the GIJN webinar. In Nepal, too, there have been attempts by various government agencies to censor information. 

Last month, the portal Kathmandu Press posted a story about alleged corruption during the purchase of medical equipment involving people in high places. This story was deleted from the site by a software company maintaining the portal’s homepage which had links to individuals in the Prime Minister’s Office involved in the deal.

On 27 April, Radio Nepal aired a live interview of former prime minister Baburam Bhattarai that was sharply critical of Prime Minister K P Oli. The government asked the head of the state-owned radio station and its news editor for an explanation, and got the interview deleted from Radio Nepal’s site.

On 18 April, Press Council Nepal (PCN) sent a letter to Nepal Telecommunication Authority to shut down certain web-based portals and ban them from publishing false news. In all these recent cases, the government appears to be using the cover of the COVID-19 crisis and the excuse of protecting privacy and shielding the public from fake news and character assassination to crackdown on the free press.

“Many supposedly democratic countries like the United States, India and Nepal are censoring the press and making it very difficult for press freedom to prevail while covering COVID 19,” said Kosmos Biswokarma editor of Kathmandu Press. Tampering with the website without permission raised grave questions of freedom of press in this country, he added.

The mission of journalism is to use the citizens’ right to freedom of expression to keep them informed. Journalists go to great lengths, and put themselves at considerable risk, to gather and investigate factual information to alert the public and authorities about wrong-doing and malpractice.

However, citizens today get their information not just from the mass media but also from the Internet. The dissemination of fake news, rumours, defamation, violation of privacy on social media is not journalism. Governments should make that distinction.

The authorities should not mistake misinformation for journalism, and not use objectionable social media content for blanket suppression of journalistic information. There has to be a mechanism to track such content and take action against perpetrators. It is the Press Council Nepal’s job to trace these sources, and not issue directives to ban portals. In fact it is not the PCN’s job to close down the media at all.

During emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, due diligence rules are relaxed and there is a lack of transparency in big deals. Because it is the journalist’s job to speak truth to power, this often gets them into trouble, as happened in Nepal with the coverage of the Omni Business Corporate International in the direct purchase of test kits and medical equipment from China at inflated cost.

Shiva Gaunle of the Centre for Investigative Journalism Nepal (CIJ-N) says the biggest problem journalists are facing during the present crisis is getting data and verifying them. “It is not just the lockdown and restrictions on mobility, news items are taken off home pages or shut down, how can Nepal claim to have right to information and rule of law?” he asks.

Journalism is not a crime, and fake news is not journalism. Governments should be able to separate the two, especially during emergencies like this global pandemic.

Namrata Sharma is the former chair of the Centre for Investigative Journalism Nepal

Twitter: NamrataSharmaP

Protect Journalists’ Rights so We can Stop the COVID-19 Disinfodemic

Jerald Aruldas, a journalist from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and his colleague, were held by city police for 9 hours for reporting on stories around alleged government corruption around the food aid distribution system and how doctors in Coimbatore faced food shortages while working during the COVID-19 lockdown. Courtesy: Jerald Aruldas

By Stella Paul
HYDERABAD, India , May 1 2020 – Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, a digital journalist and founder of a news portal in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, was arrested for running two news articles related to COVID-19.

One of the articles exposed corruption in the government food aid distribution system, while the other highlighted doctors in Coimbatore city facing food issues. The city police first detained the journalist and photographer who had reported on the stories, Jerald Aruldas and M Balaji, for 9 hours before arresting Pandian for publishing the pieces.

Yesterday morning, Apr. 30, Aruldas told me about how his detainment and the arrest of his editor have shaken him: “The police did not hurt me or Balaji. We were not interrogated, just made to sit there for long hours. But it was still a very intimidating experience. There is an air of fear in the local media. Every media person is now scared of covering news related to COVID-19.”

The worries are not unjustified: Pandian, released on bail on Apr. 28, has been charged under several sections of criminal laws as well as the The Disaster Management Act, 2005. He faces several years in jail if proven guilty.

The arrest of Pandian and detention of Aruldas and Balaji are not isolated cases. Across India, media personnel have been facing violence, including intimidation, detention and arrests.

While some like Pandian have been arrested for reporting in the media on government inaction or its inability to combat COVID-19 crisis, some have been arrested for social media posts.

Zubair Ahmad, a senior freelance journalist based in India’s Andamans and Nicobor Islands, was arrested on Apr. 27 for sending a tweet that questioned the alleged quarantining of locals for speaking to COVID-19 patients over the phone.

Ahmad’s tweet was based on an article published by a local newspaper where a woman claimed she was put under quarantine following a phone call to a relative who tested positive for the coronavirus.

The same day, Ahmad was arrested by police for “posting inciting, false and instigating tweet to disrupt public harmony, violating government order and to create panic among the public”.

Currently out on conditional bail, Ahmad has also been charged for several offences under the The Disaster Management Act, 2005.

“I am safe, at home and under conditional bail,” he told me when I called him. But he sounded tired and particularly disturbed by the fact that the police have been carrying out a smear campaign against him.

For example, the police chief of Andamans and Nicobar Deependra Pathak called Ahmad a “self-proclaimed journalist” in his address to the media after his arrest.

“I have written for India Today, EPW  (Economic and Political Weekly – a well-known media publication), Down to Earth, IE (Indian Express), TOI (Times of India) etc. Now, they are trying to discredit me by calling me a self proclaimed and self styled journalist,” he told me.

The anguish is easy to understand and also relatable. It takes years for a journalist to build a career and reputation and earn the trust of readers/viewers. 

Questioning the credibility is an attempt to end the reader’s trust or destroy the very foundation of a journalist’s reputation.

IPS award-winning journalist and senior correspondent Stella Paul.

A disturbing global trend

This is not something happening only in India. Like the pandemic itself, assaults against working journalists and media outlets, especially those often criticising government policies and actions, have been on the rise worldwide.

One of the biggest such actions took place in Myanmar on Apr. 1 when the government ordered blockade of 230 local websites using local IP addresses.

Many of them were news portals like the Rakhine-based Narinjara News – a known critic of Myanmar army’s action against the minority Rohingyas. Other news sites that were blocked included the Development Media Group (DMG), Mandalay-based Mandalay In-Depth News, Voice of Myanmar and Tachileik-based Mekong News. All of which are officially registered with the Ministry of Information, which gives them permission to publish locally.

A number of organisations have appealed to the government to lift the ban, and my friend Ni Ni Aye, a political and internet access activist, says that there may have been a partial lifting of NGO-owned websites. But there is no clear picture yet.

As a journalist who has covered the Rohingya issues both within and outside of Myanmar, I can both understand and relate to the difficulties the media personnel associated with these websites. When your portal is blocked, your connections are blocked and you are cut off from the rest of the world, including your audience, which is your main support system.

The result of this could not only mean financial difficulties but also a very dangerous level of isolation, which makes you completely vulnerable.

In the winter of 2018, I visited Myanmar and connected to a public internet network. Immediately, all of my devices stopped working. They started working again the moment I left Myanmar airspace – no repairs or virus cleaning needed.

But during those six days when I could not send or receive a single message to anyone anywhere, I spent each moment in anxiety, fearing a knock on my door at any minute. The worst of all fears is to vanish without anyone in my family or any of my friends knowing about it.

Personal fears aside, the intimidation and suppression of media is also a big loss for the people who can no longer access the news they want. And when there is a pandemic with no available cure, lack of information is a threat to public safety. On Mar. 31, in a last editorial before it was blocked, the DMG wrote this: “the deprivation of the internet as a means of receiving information is especially problematic at a time when timely communication of coronavirus preventive measures could literally be life-saving”.

Rakhine state, for example, is now a black spot as hyperlocal news is no longer accessible. 

Nyi Khine Thwee, an artist in Myanmar, has long been drawing cartoons to show the human rights violations and the plight of people in Rakhine state. But since the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been using his art to express the current situation of media and freedom of speech in the country. Courtesy: Nyi Khine Thwee

Nyi Khine Thwee – an artist I know – has been describing the human rights violations and the plight of people in Rakhine through illustrations for a while. Thwee has now taken up drawing cartoons to express the current situation of media and freedom of speech in the country.

Thwee’s work seems to be a perfect response to an ongoing United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) campaign called Cartoons for Freedom of Expression, launched to commemorate the Press Freedom Day on May 3.  The campaign has been publishing series of cartoons that show the state of press freedom during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Exposing fake news

Meanwhile, there is a bombardment of misinformation related to COVID-19 on social media. In India, the fake news first began to appear in February and I remember receiving Whatsapp texts that said chopping onions would kill the disease. Then, as the virus spread further, the volume of misinformation also increased.

Some news outlets did play a part in this by sharing news of cow urine being a possible cure for COVID-19. Yet there was no official body or strategy to counter the fake news until Mar. 31 when the Supreme Court of India, instructed the government to share daily updates on the coronavirus.

However, despite the government efforts, fake news and false information, especially laced with communal hatred have continued, especially on social media platforms.

I just noticed one such post on Twitter which calls upon Hindus to celebrate because a Muslim parliamentarian from Hyderabad died because of COVID-19. I can only imagine the kind of responses and public anger such a hateful and fake news post will result in when it goes viral.

I read a brief just released by UNESCO about the role of free and independent media in countering COVID-19.

Titled ‘Journalism, press freedom and COVID-19’, the brief quotes Director-General Audrey Azoulay as saying: “At this crucial moment and for our future, we need a free press, and journalists need to be able to count on all of us.”

I think the UNESCO brief hits the nail hard: if we are to win this battle against the pandemic, we need the right information and this cannot be accessed only by wielding the baton, but also by freeing and strengthening the pen of journalists.


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