By Duncan Mlanjira
Social media is awash with the distribution of fake news but to curtail it through regulations, there is need for the right professionals to describe and define what is fake news rather than solely leaving it for politicians.
This was observed by media managers during one of the presentations in the day-long national conference on media and elections that took place at Crossroads Hotel in Lilongwe on Tuesday.
The presentation on fake news was done by lecturer in the department of language and communication skills at Chancellor College, Jimmy Kainja, who described that when some African countries took upon themselves to define fake news, they ended up censoring public view.
He observed that in trying to regulate dissemination of COVID-19 information, some countries’ politicians ended up abusing the privilege to stifle public opinion through using fake news as an excuse for their own political gains.
He said the term ‘fake news’ has gained common use but the term is unhelpful since information deemed ‘fake’ may not necessarily be false — but a mixture of truth and falsity, or misleading in the context it is presented.
The information which can be false or misleading is not always in the context of what is considered to be ‘news’ as the term does not take into consideration the intention of those sharing the information — whether they know that the information is false or misleading.
“The term has been hijacked by politicians to discredit credible news and information they dislike,” Kainja said.
“In most cases, politicians highjack some credible news to describe it as fake simply because they dislike such information and that usually it is the same politicians which pick such news on the public domain through their publicity mongers just to test public reaction.”
He highlighted that academics and organisations, such as UNESCO, have come up with alternative description of fake news as disinformation — information which is false, inaccurate or misleading and which is intended to mislead, particularly information issued by the government/ruling party or other state actor to influence the situation.
Another term used is misinformation — which is information that is false, inaccurate or misleading but might not be deliberately intended to mislead or deceive others.
And there is propaganda as defined as information that is biased or misleading in nature — used to promote a political cause or point of view.
Kainja said disinformation was evident during the two past elections — the 2019 tripartite and the 2020 fresh presidential polls that came through spread news through impersonating journalists from established media organisations such as the Times Gropup and Nations Publications.
“This is mainly because traditional media still enjoy more trust than online only publications,” he said.
“Particularly vulnerable to manipulation were newspaper front pages, which are routinely posted on social media platforms for promotion.
“In addition to the front pages, social media accounts and websites were also taken advantage to spread disinformation.”
During plenary debate, some observers asked if such fake news distribution can be regulated through Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA) to curtail it.
Fergus Lipenga, MACRA’s director of broadcasting — who made a presentation ‘media monitoring report and regulatory challenges and successes’ — said the public can contact MACRA when they feel that their accounts have been hacked for the regulator to contact the managers of the host sites to bring it down.
He disclosed that several people and organisations have contacted MACRA which in turn liaised with host platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for such fake news to be brought down.
It was thus observed and strongly discouraged from just leaving the regulation process to be solely done by politicians through Parliament as they could use it for their own political gain.
The conference was opened by MEC chairperson, Justice Chifundo Kachale SC, who said after holding the two elections, MEC decided to bring the media managers together to reflect and review how the industry performed.
“The Commission has deliberately targeted media managers because in our understanding you are the gatekeepers,” Kachale said.
“As gatekeepers, you are very critical in deciding and controlling what gets published and not — in other words, you determine the editorial policy of your institution and how its implemented.
“Apart from that role, you will recall that in preparation for the elections, the media managers gathered here in Lilongwe in 2018 to review and adopt the Media Code of Conduct on Reporting Elections and came here again in 2019 to develop and adopt the Implementation Toolkit for the Media Code of Conduct.
“The two documents have been very critical in guiding how the media reports on elections.”
Kachale added that besides the two, there is the Communications Act, Broadcasting Licenses and other instruments that also have a bearing on how the media environment is regulated during elections.
He said MEC is eager to see to it that its partners are performing their roles in a professional and excellent manner and within the law.
“The Commission is eager to see to it that any competency or knowledge gap should be addressed so that technical incapacitation should not hinder delivery.
“That is why, whenever resources are available, we endeavor to engage the media more especially on capacity building.”
He took cognizance of the important role that the media played during the past two elections as it helped educate the public and mobilized them to take active role in elections.
And because of the wider reach of the media, Kachale said, could also get its messages across with relative ease without having to meet each and every voter physically in the context of a public health COVID pandemic.
“There are examples which I am sure you are familiar with from other regions where the media’s role has been dysfunctional and has derailed electoral process thereby stifling the democratic space.
“Fortunately for us, this has not been the case and we should not take it for granted, but we should applaud everybody involved from the media profession for ensure that the democratic space is guaranteed for all players.
“Whilst we cherish your positive contribution to the growth of democracy in the country, we should continue to be on the lookout for any traits that might attempt to swerve the media from its right course and degenerate into playing a role that has been seen in other jurisdictions where the media has been perverted to actually perpetrate discord.”
Kachale continued to say that MEC must strengthen the safeguards and one way of doing that is by ensuring that the media are always reminded of their roles during critical times especially elections.
He said media managers need to continue to remain vigilant and ensure that their work is not being manipulated to promote and help to achieve the ambitions of the selfish few who may have access and control over media institutions.
“You need to always be thinking of a greater good to the society and be sensitive to the conflict triggers that may arise in the course of your reporting.”