Sunday, 4 November 2018

A Free Press and Natural Disasters

Over the years, people in the media development field have been paying increasing attention to industry performance and sustainability at times of natural disaster. It had previously been the case that strategies for media durability would focus almost exclusively on the tendency of dictatorial governments and criminal elements to attempt to silence the free press through subterfuge, threats, death and injury.

Journalists were (and still are) silenced by physical attacks, bribery, media regulation, and social environments conducive to self-censorship. Media houses are also deliberately starved of important resources in order to cripple their operations. There are advertising boycotts and targeted official attacks of different kinds, and today there is an attempt to undermine the credibility of mainstream media through concerted campaigns to which the label “fake news” is being gratuitously attached.

Through it all, we had somehow continued to ignore the fact that among the most effective ways a media enterprise can be wiped out, and therefore terminally silenced, is through a natural disaster of one kind or another.

In 2005 at the inaugural conference of the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) in Jordan, the two Caribbean representatives there put the issue on the table: press freedom can also fall prey to disasters and the responses to disasters.

It was only one year after Hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne – both of which had badly affected Hispaniola (Haiti in particular); while Grenada was virtually decimated by Ivan. In all instances, the media had been severely disabled.

I was one of the two delegates in Jordan. The other was Jean-Claude Louis of the Panos operation in Haiti. Five years later, it was Haiti’s turn, following the deadly earthquake there.

At the Jordan conference, I was elected to the GFMD Steering Committee and thereafter continued pressing the point. When Irma and Maria devastated Dominica and other islands last year, it was therefore not a hard-sell to propose assistance for affected journalists, via the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM). The Caribbean Broadcasting Union (CBU) admirably focused on damaged media plant and equipment.

Then came last week’s floods in T&T and media performance that silenced the “fake news” purveyors and outright enemies of the free press. Employing the same social media platforms so often engaged to undermine them, our cadre of young, tireless reporters swamped the landscape with first-hand, verified reporting. The Guardian Media team excelled at this, as did some colleagues from other media. This was exemplary media practice.

It was, among other things, reminiscent of Irma and Maria when social media mischief-makers all appeared to remain silenced and under their beds while journalists and other media workers were out on the field diligently doing their work.

Of course, last week, some of the regular suspects found time from the sanctity of their homes or caves or nests to attempt to divert the news agenda in the direction of mischief and falsehood. In the midst of a disaster this is unpardonable, to say the very least. But to the credit of media media audiences these pathetic characters were largely ignored.

Last March, the ACM assembled journalists from around the Caribbean and sat them down alongside climate change specialists, development experts, and public agencies responsible for regional disaster management and relief to discuss two main issues.

The first had to do with the resilience of media enterprises to withstand the effects of different kinds of disasters, and the second was to determine the requirements of sound journalistic practice under such conditions.

Out of that exercise, we produced a small document – a “pamphlet”, I have been calling it - which is now also available in Spanish.

But we still need to get our act together as media and as a society. For example, the ODPM needs to sit with the Telecommunications Authority as a matter of great urgency to discuss the need for an Emergency Alert System, and other requirements of this country’s National Emergency Communications Plan. Minister Stuart Young needs to find the time to ensure this is done.

This Plan must urgently become practised strategy. The local media have already announced partnership status and their journalists proven their worth.

*Originally published in the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian - October 31, 2018

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Lies, propaganda and hate - the vital connections

Among the more important imperatives of modern day journalism is exposing the people and agendas devoted to undermining trust in what now operates under the moniker of the “mainstream media.”

The difficulty with this though is that systems to unearth untruth and malpractice in the media are, at the same time, absolutely necessary in modern society to ensure that vested political and commercial interests do not prevail at the expense of the public interest.

This is why people are so attracted to the so-called “fake news” phenomenon as worthy of consistent vigilance and as a default when confronted with news and information that does not ring right with the status quo or does not conform with their belief systems.

It is also, at the same time, understandable that people in all their social and political spaces and environments should be concerned that lies and propaganda do not gratuitously enter the sphere of mainstream public communication. Though all of this is not new, what is different are the newer, infinitely more ubiquitous platforms, the growing sophistication of propaganda campaigns, and a catchy oxymoronic tag.

I have used this space before to help people identify the symptoms of this contrived malady and how we can easily identify its purveyors. In many instances the undermining of trust becomes a concerted focus of the most untrustworthy. The signs are relatively easy to pick up and essentially comprise a lack of accountability and transparency alongside clearly identifiable partisan agendas. Think of the last time you saw someone pronounce “fake news” on something and who is offering the assertion.

There is another, equally evident, feature of this: the propagation of expression designed to both defame and to promote hate. In social environments elsewhere, science and measurement are being applied to determine the connection between political and sectional survival and the employment of hate speech. No such compulsion here.

I spent two days in Jamaica last week examining this discrete component of the disinformation agenda. For it will help advance the cause of those concerned about the use of lies and propaganda to understand how promoting hate against individuals and groups feeds into the process of gaining sectional advantage.

It was generally agreed that the entire media industry, in all its facets, focus on actions to ensure that the promotion of hate – expressed as racism, sexism, xenophobia and discrimination against identifiable, vulnerable groups – does not gain traction within the body of mainstream media content, as indeed it sometimes does. It is a sad admission to make as a journalist, I must tell you. But it is the exception rather than the rule.

It is important, we who attended the Public Media Alliance workshop in Kingston last week concluded, that journalists and others operating in the sphere of public communication know how to identify what constitutes hateful content.

This becomes easier if there is, at first, a commitment to treat all groups and individuals with dignity and respect. Now, examine those recent social media posts about the demands of the LGBTQI community to be embraced by the universality of the human rights from which we claim to benefit. Think about the ignorant stereotyping of immigrants and why the disabled are yet to achieve social and economic equity.

There was also acknowledgement of the special status of children. I was quick to add this comes with astute disregard for how children look or behave. In the midst of the violence and mayhem, it has become far too easy to forget that our children require a special level of protection and are, in fact, protected by global convention and national law.

There has also been a tendency to assert cultural specificity on the question of human rights. Yes, we sometimes hear, "there are human rights, BUT what about our small size? What about cultural antecedents?" These are, of course, all entirely false and mistaken assertions. It is amazing that I once had to fight this point with a senior state official in the communication sector.

So, along with “false news” declarations and the hate, comes a declared disregard for human rights. These are all symptoms of a disease that has increasingly become endemic in the body politic. We so frequently point to more developed jurisdictions so afflicted but appear blissfully oblivious to its manifestations among us all.

First published in the T&T Guardian - August 15, 2018

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Eyes Wide Open for Disinformation

Disinformation and propaganda disguised as truth constitute more than a minor threat to social and political stability. This has been found to be so everywhere such practices are evident.

Responsible authorities and non-state institutions have been keeping a sharp eye on this, within the context of the use of new and social media, for about two decades now. Free expression rapporteurs from the United Nations, Europe, Africa and the Americas have issued more than one joint communiqué on the subject. There is also a lot of literature on traditional propaganda campaigns and how they work.

In the meantime, there is a growing body of direction on how this problem can be significantly dealt with – particularly when it comes to addressing the quality of traditional and new media audiences – without substantially threatening free expression.

The basic modus operandi behind the most recent versions of this phenomenon are now well known and understood and the direction flows of such information are becoming easier to track.

We know that both elements supportive of governments and those in opposition are routinely co-opted to facilitate and to enhance flows of disinformation. There are also non-state private actors that may for a number of reasons attempt to sway public opinion on a variety of matters, some criminal in nature.

I have repeatedly argued in fora examining such issues that a primary, durable intervention would be to focus on improving the discerning eyes and ears of receivers of news and information. “Media and information literacy” is the fancy term employed by development people nowadays.

Let’s break this down a bit and assume someone in a Whatsapp group posts a social media message ostensibly emanating from a senior police officer.

Let’s also say there is reference to a “Home Affairs” department of government and “upcoming elections” in the country.

What we would need are people to start asking some basic questions and to apply a more naturally sceptical pre-disposition. Firstly, do we have a “home affairs” department in T&T? Secondly, what “upcoming elections”?

Then, armed with an abundance of scepticism, portions of the message from your inbox can be entered into a search engine or one of several websites now used to identify “fake news.” Snopes is an easy one to use.

VoilĂ ! “Home Affairs” and “upcoming elections” together with other key terms used in the Whatsapp message will yield an October 17, 2017 missive from South African officials regarding ANC leadership elections there last year – replicated almost word for word in the Whatsapp message. Takes a few minutes.

The next, slightly more difficult exercise, would be to work out ‘who’ might be behind what appears to be a coordinated effort to generate panic and concern about a visitation from some “home department” to verify elections-related information.

Many times, the person who innocently posts clearly bogus information on the group, would try to later diminish the potential harm by stating that such information can serve as a useful warning about the possibility of fake state operatives making the rounds.

Inquisitive sceptics (a condition to which some journalists are prone) would then position the finding alongside prevailing disinformation on, let’s say, the application of the property tax - to cite one possible, non-exclusive lead - and a variety of complementary online resources, including shady “news” outlets and supportive Facebook groups and pages.

Now, be clear, there is an essential difference between misinformation and disinformation. What online propaganda campaigns do is promote intentionally false (and often malicious) information through the use of people and channels that have the potential to innocently disseminate false information to wide and diverse audiences.

Additionally, one of the other main features of coordinated campaigns of disinformation is the effort to weaken the value of countervailing, authoritative sources of authentic information, of which the so-called “mainstream” mass media are but one.

It is therefore not surprising to often witness a high level of hostility toward and slurs directed at journalists and their media houses by politicians and their surrogates. This has been proven to be the case up North.

It’s almost axiomatic that disinformation campaigns embrace attacks on journalism and individual journalists. What is needed is a mainstream and social media consuming public that more readily diagnoses some pretty self-evident symptoms. Keep your eyes wide open!

(Originally published in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian)