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Kuala Lumpur, March, 21st, 2017 (Annabelle Liang). Is Indonesian President Joko Widodo a descendant of Chinese Christians? You may have read it somewhere. But, it is untrue. Other false reports include that of a Singapore food stall selling plastic rice, and Pope Francis endorsing current United States President Donald Trump.
The blitz of these reports, commonly known as ’fake news’, affects readers across the world. In some cases, journalists made mistakes. Other reports were deliberately crafted by opportunists.
“Once the false news has gone out, not many people bother with the correction. They still remember the first version,” said Mr Alan John, former Deputy Editor of The Straits Times, Singapore. “It’s all about likes and shares and eyeballs. Do you draw the eyeballs to what you are doing? That’s the main thing. Being accurate is not that important,” Mr John added.
He was addressing 20 media practitioners at an inaugural SIGNIS Asia journalism desk, held at the Council of Churches of Malaysia Ecumenical Centre (CCM), Kuala Lumpur on 10th and 11th March. The theme of the gathering was “Communicating Hope and Trust in our Time”.
Participants from 13 Asian countries were invited. They came from Pakistan, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Japan, Cambodia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Singapore. At the opening, Lawrence John, VP, SIGNIS challenged the participants to take ownership of the SIGNIS Journalism Desk as a way to network and build partnership in the region.
While participants identified as Catholic, many worked for secular media outlets such as the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), The Manila Times, Mediacorp, Bernama and The Associated Press.
Over sessions and meals, participants spoke about the challenges of operating as a journalist. A common obstacle was ’fake news’.
For instance, India cancelled its popular 500 and 1,000 rupee bank notes last November. Many media outlets claimed that the newly-issued 500 and 2,000 rupee notes had tracking capabilities.
“Even news channels picked up the story that was actually false. The government had to step in,” said Ms Karen Janice Laurie.
Elsewhere, journalists are often pressured to present advertisers or newsmakers in a good light. In developing countries like Cambodia and Vietnam, the pressure is often less subtle. After a press briefing, envelopes with money are distributed to journalists.
A colleague from Pakistan, shared that it was dangerous to advocate for persecuted Christians. “I always feel a threat that the opposite groups could feel for me,” he said. As a result, he does not use his name on reports.
Still, it is not all doom and gloom. Participants pledged to regain the trust of the public by networking, verifying facts and valuing accuracy over speed. “We all have been trying to write responsibly our entire lives. I think the demand right now is to be more thorough than before,” said Mr John, who is also the Director of the Asia Journalism Fellowship.
As the roundtable came to a close, participants came up with a plan to continue telling stories of hope. Suggestions included a blog, expanding the SIGNIS journalism network and starting an online helpdesk for media practitioners.
“I think I saw the future of the Church, and the future of journalists that make good things for the Church,” said Fr Anucha Joseph Chaiyadej, the only non-lay participant, from Thailand.
Other speakers during the conference included veteran journalists and Dr Jim McDonnell, secretary of the SIGNIS Journalism Desk, Brussels, Augustine Anthuvan, Senior Editor, Singapore, Terence Fernandez, Communication and Perception Management, Malaysia, Dr. Magimai Pragasam, Director, Centre for Media and Research and facilitated by Karen Arukesamy and Tri Nguyen.
Archbishop Joseph Salvador Marino, the Apostolic Nuncio to Malaysia and Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur Julian Leow also dropped by for lunch with the participants.
“The decision is yours to be a person of integrity. If you put the truth, put your faith before you, opportunities will be there,” Archbishop Leow said.
Sir Augustine Loorthusamy, the former President of SIGNIS World concluded: “Jesus Christ did not come for Christians. Jesus Christ came for all. Our work in the field of social communication must be for all. So, whatever we do must be a global approach.”