Press ombudsman timely but ‘fake news’ not sole target, media watchdogs say

Centre for Independent Journalism director Sonia Randhawa (left) said the press ombudsman would give the media more power to negotiate with the government on issues relating to censorship and regulation. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Centre for Independent Journalism director Sonia Randhawa (left) said the press ombudsman would give the media more power to negotiate with the government on issues relating to censorship and regulation. — Picture by Choo Choy May

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KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 17 — Industry watchdogs and an academic lauded the recent announcement by a press group to establish a press ombudsman as a way to self-regulate the media, but cautioned that the body should not be tasked to tackle “fake news”.

Speaking to Malay Mail, they explained that “fake news” has less or nothing to do with the factual accuracy of news reports, but can be rather political in nature.

“The good thing here is that this is coming from the industry itself, because it shows that the industry wants to achieve a certain level of standards and integrity.

“We cannot say that this press ombudsperson is going to check for content that is fake as their main job. That's like witch-hunting in that sense. That's not the role,” University of Nottingham Malaysia lecturer and media activist V. Gayathry told Malay Mail.

An ombudsman is a public official who acts as an impartial intermediary between the public and government or bureaucracy, or an employee of an organisation who mediates disputes.

The former executive director of the regional press watch group Southeast Asian Press Alliance said the “fake news” issue is rather complicated, while fake content does not just originate from the media.

“Fake news comes from different sources and are often on websites ― false advertising, and Facebook accounts,” the former journalist added.

Meanwhile, Centre for Independent Journalism director Sonia Randhawa said the press ombudsman would give the media more power to negotiate with the government on issues relating to censorship and regulation.

Sonia said there should be an assurance that the rights of smaller media outlets and its interests would be taken into consideration.

“One of the key advantages of a free and voluntary media council to the proposed ombudsperson is that it can be set up to include the representatives from outside the media industry, such as women's groups, religious bodies and representatives of indigenous peoples.

“The ombudsperson must not institutionalise the exclusion of minorities from the press or other media,” she told Malay Mail.

Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia) communication and media programme manager Marte Hellema echoed their sentiments, saying that the main purpose of setting up a press ombudsman would be to monitor and assess the accuracy of reporting.

“The potential impact of any ombudsman in curbing fake news depends on the perception of person appointed, and the people following what he or she does.

“Assuring that the appointee has a good code of conduct that he or she can use to do the job, will greatly improve the ability to monitor or label fake news, but the climate in which he or she will operate will be detrimental,” she told the Malay Mail.

Hellema said the ombudsman could give individual members of the press a level of protection if they were accused of something that has to do less with the facts, but more on who or what they are reporting about.

She pointed out that the ombudsman could have many benefits for the country, including providing a gateway for the public to file complaints against members of the media, improving relationship between the media and the public, and even serving as a mediator to settle disputes between different outlets.

Who should be made an ombudsman?

The respondents also hoped that civil societies and other relevant industry stakeholders be made part of the ombudsman.

Hellemas said the first task ahead would be to select “unbiased” media representatives to qualify as ombudsman due to the politically-tense environment in the country.

“Most press ombudsman mechanisms in other countries seem to be combined with a press council, which gives the position both some support, but also ensures oversight. Not having such a broader structure in place will inevitably affect the position,” she said.

Hellema said other challenges would be the forming a ombudsman consist of formulating and agreeing to a clear mandate and terms of reference, including clear agreement on means of enforcement, clear formulation of a complaints mechanism, and to agree to a concrete set of ethical journalistic standards.

She added that while it might not be a easy feat to assure that proposed standards are commonly agreed to, this can be resolved by following internationally developed codes of conduct.

Gayathry said the proposed ombudsman needs a transparent selection process on the appointment of the group's members.

“When dialogue about the press ombudsman itself takes place, it would be useful if there is participation from media monitors and civil societies.

“This is because the media wants to ensure its credibility involves different sections, like reports on hate crimes, human rights and others,” she said adding that any mechanism employed by the media, instantly relates back to to its own credibility, which upholds public accountability.

Just like Sonia, free speech group Article 19 Malaysia's programme officer E. Nalini said the ombudsman should train its sights in getting the government to abolish or reform what she said are draconian acts with wide-ranging powers ― such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and the Official Secrets Act 1972.

Nalini said the current discussion and proposed law by the government to curb the spread of fake news should be dealt separately using different means.

“Fake news itself is a legitimate concern, but not as that defined by the government [The anti-fake news law] has to be studied and all the relevant human rights organisations must be consulted to understand the issue better,” she said.

On Tuesday, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA)’s Media Freedom Committee (MFC) Malaysia said it will form a sub-committee to study the formation of the ombudsman following discussions with local news editors.

The decision came after the MFC agreed that the formation of an independent, self-regulating press council is a long process that will take time.

The group said a body representing the press in Malaysia that would act as a mediator between the government and the media is essential, amid criminal action against some in the industry.

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