Veteran journalist Bertil Lintner has warned that the rampant misinformation on Facebook and Twitter is having a negative effect on journalism in Myanmar, India and the region, speaking at a forum in Kolkata, India.
Swedish journalist and author Bertil Lintner spoke about the media at the two-day Kolkata Colloquium 2019 organized by Observer Research Foundation (ORF) under the title of "Reimagining BIMSTEC" on 28 November.
As one speaker said at the meeting, there have been concerns expressed about media freedom in the region and in India, with the latter ranking poorly in the media freedom index.
Objectivity, balance and the challenge of so-called “Fake News” were issues that Lintner dealt with in his presentation and follow-up question time, main focus being on Myanmar.
Lintner said the earlier challenge of so-called “citizen journalism” has made way for the serious threat posed by misinformation spread quickly through social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter.
“I was actually in Kolkata a few years ago at a conference about the media and made myself extremely unpopular at that conference because I criticized something that was very much al a mode at that time, citizen journalists, citizen journalism,” he said.
“Everyone has the right to be a journalist and could be a journalist. But what I argued was being a journalist is a profession. It’s a job. It’s a trade like any other profession. Like being an electrician, a carpenter or an architect. It is nothing that anyone just can do. It needs training. It needs experience. I said that I wouldn’t want to be in an aeroplane flown by a citizen pilot and nor would I like to have my teeth fixed by a citizen dentist. This is how serious it is,” Lintner said.
As he stressed, people have the right to write and say what they want, but it should not be mixed up with journalism.
“This was a couple of years ago. Today I actually believe that the tide has changed. There is much more criticism coming up about and against the main platform for so-called citizen journalism, social media, especially Facebook. And it is a threat here to the independent media from social media,” he said.
Lintner, who initially made a name for himself covering military regime-run Burma, said that when he wrote for the Far Economic Review his stories were carefully fact-checked and edited, and when covering sensitive issues, a lawyer would give the story a careful look.
“That is not the case with social media, where anyone can post anything they want. They can do that, fine, but again don’t mix it up with journalism. I don’t want to sound ‘Trumpesque’ here but there is a lot of ‘Fake News’ on social media, doctored pictures, hate speech, and there is no professional oversight at all to check whether this is correct or true or not,” he said.
“If you look at the whole profession of journalism, citizen journalism and that sort of thing, you have to remember … that objectivity and fairness is something that we strive for, we cannot always get there, but we do it as much as we can,” Lintner added.
Proper media coverage of events and issues in Myanmar and the region is difficult in the face the avalanche of social media.
“In 2012, press censorship was lifted to the surprise of many in Myanmar and within months there were, if I am not mistaken, sixteen daily newspapers in Yangon alone, plus some local newspapers in Mandalay and elsewhere,” he said.
Lintner said the number of dailies today stood at only about three or four and they faced the challenge of competing with social media and bringing in income through advertising.
“What happens? In order to survive they have to look for money, and who is willing to give them money? Many publications have turned to what we call the cronies or the big businessmen who have plenty of money and would like to support media organizations for one reason or another. But here again the objectivity and impartiality is being jeopardized,” the journalist told the meeting.
Lintner, who covers a wide range of countries and issues across Asia and has written several books, spoke about a country that is flexing its muscles and reach in the region and the world and how this may be affecting Myanmar and other countries.
“China has launched all over the globe a massive campaign to promote its view or its world view, its values, the political ideas and so on. And that includes supporting various publications including the largest daily newspapers. And then money is also going to various (Myanmar) political parties – there are elections in the country (Myanmar) next year,” he noted.
“You may argue – what’s so strange about this? Aren’t all the countries doing this? The United States? China has its Confucius Institutes, but so what? America has USIS. United Kingdom has its British Councils. Germany the Goethe Institutes, France the Alliance Francaise. So what is the strange thing about China doing the same thing?
“Well, it is not strange but it is a new phenomenon. There is a new player on the block. And we have to remember this new player is not a democracy. It is an authoritarian country that is taking advantage of press freedom and the freedom of speech in countries in the region and beyond and that is the main difference. That is also, apart from the attacks in the social media, competition in the social media the main challenge facing the media in the region today,” Lintner said.
Myanmar is struggling with press freedom and freedom of speech, the journalist said, telling the meeting about his experiences with training journalists and how he had the help of the late Muslim lawyer U Ko Ni, who told Myanmar journalists about how to operate in an atmosphere where several libel and defamation laws, largely hangovers from British colonial times, might result in journalists ending up in court and prison.
“U Ko Ni, he was assassinated at the airport in Yangon – he suffered for what he was doing. So the climate is getting tighter in many countries,” warned Lintner.
He said there was good news in India in that the middle class is expanding, with an active reading public, and the media is thriving, even though it faces its own challenges.
In the face of these difficulties in Myanmar, India and the region, he stressed journalists need to strive to do a good job and be objective.