BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The proliferation of fake news during the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the need for legitimate and trustworthy media, a journalism forum heard on Friday.

With so many falsehoods spread through WhatsApp and social media — and the politicisation of the pandemic in many parts of the world — has reinforced need for for journalists who verify and fact-check information has become even more crucial, said Ain Bandial, co-founder and editor of The Scoop.

“Mistruths spread with such velocity on WhatsApp, and it sows confusion and the potential for public panic. In a time of crisis, it is essential we have news organisations that take a critical look at the information presented, whether it’s from the rumour mill or government sources,” she said. “Both need equal amounts of scrutiny.”

Ain was joined by three other panelists — Faiq Airudin, Haadi Bakar of Geekturf and blogger Rano Iskandar — in an industry dialogue hosted by The Scoop, where the discussion focused on challenges to local journalism. The panel was moderated by Siti Hajar Mahathir, a former reporter at the Borneo Bulletin.

L-R: Haadi Bakar, Faiq Airudin, Ain Bandial, Siti Hajar Mahathir and Rano Iskandar. Photo: The Scoop

Live streaming of the daily COVID press briefings by media also helped to dispel fake news, providing citizens with a greater degree of government transparency then previously seen in Brunei.

“Before this, I think it was virtually unheard of that you could have an open platform to ask cabinet ministers whatever you want,” Ain said.

“This has been one of the positive outcomes of the daily press conferences — transparency; but also that it eased public anxiety over COVID, because the Ministry of Health took a proactive rather than reactive approach in letting citizens know what was going on.”

Social media influencer Rano Iskandar added that fake news can have a detrimental effect on social harmony in the country, and that it is important to educate the public on ways to deal with unverified information.

“What do you want to do with the content when you receive it? It takes just one friend on your social media to [spread fake news and] make it viral,” he said.

Another panellist, Haadi Bakar, said it is impossible to stop fake news completely, but that it could be mitigated with better media literacy.

“Fake news is an everyday battle that the media face,” he said.

With the advent of technology, the co-founder of Geekturf believes the older generation has a difficult time detecting fake news compared to the younger generation who grew up using digital devices.

Faiq Airudin, a multimedia contributor for The Scoop, said there is a dearth of verifiable sources in Brunei.

“It’s great that [the government] has a Telegram channel for all [COVID-19] advisories, but it still feels slow [to get the message out].

“You want to dispel rumours almost instantaneously but it has to go through checks to make [the message] as clear as possible to the public in English and Malay,” said Faiq, who also works as a digital creative.

The audience at the panel discussion on ‘Challenges to Local Journalism’. Photo: The Scoop

Self-censorship as a form of protection

The panel discussion, held as part of The Tiny Lit Fest, also addressed challenges in operating in an environment without press freedom.

Ain said it’s no secret that journalists need to practice self-censorship as a form of protection.

“We always have to be careful when we think of what we write because of where we live and the system of governance. To not do so would be reckless.”

“There are lots of stories that don’t get published for various reasons. Sometimes we might perceive a story as too politically sensitive, or we don’t have enough sources willing to speak on the record.

“We can’t publish stories that we believe to be true, but don’t have enough sources to corroborate. We can’t just go online and spread conjecture,” said Ain.

“When we look at other online platforms such as Reddit and Brunei FM on Facebook, people comment and post with zero accountability. As journalists, we can’t do the same.

She pointed out that there are no laws protecting freedom of the press in Brunei, and that journalists can be subject to libel lawsuits as well as sedition  laws.

The panellists during the forum held at The Ozone. Photo: The Scoop

Rano added that there are three topics which reporters stay clear of — sex, religion and politics.

“When I post on my Instagram, there have been times when I get asked to take something down because it’s deemed sensitive in some way,” the blogger said.

As both an editor and media proprietor, Ain said she has to weigh the risks of publishing stories deemed “sensitive”.

“Is it worth risking us getting shut down to publish a story, and our staff no longer having jobs? Does this story have the potential to create real change, or will things just stay the same? These are the questions we ask ourselves.”

Faiq said the more stories are suppressed, the more people are willing to seek them out in the age of social media.

Stories that cannot be published in mainstream news media may already be disseminating in other platforms such as WhatsApp, he added.

Print to digital media transformation

As one of the first citizen journalists to embrace social media more than a decade ago, Rano said when traditional news outlets started to transition to digital, he was forced to up his game.

“When everyone started to go digital, it was good for me because it made me level up. I had to think more about how I can make the story engaging.”

As one of the three panellists who shifted from print to digital media, Haadi said the way people consume news has changed.

He said many readers prefer to consume bite-sized news, with short videos gaining advantage over long-form content.

Haadi, who was formerly business editor at The Brunei Times, said the most difficult transition from print to digital was finding a business model that works in a small market.

With Google and Facebook dominating the market share of advertising revenue, media practitioners can no longer rely on traditional methods of advertising as its business model, he said.

Ain echoed these sentiments, saying sustainability remained the chief concern for small independent news outlets.

“How do we become a sustainable news enterprise in an industry in transition?,” Ain asked. “How do we pay staff a decent living wage, while also trying to expand content with minimal resources? These are the challenges we grapple with every day.”