The Covid-19 pandemic has infected more than a million people in the country since it was first discovered in Malaysia in January 2020. The spread of the disease becomes more and more complicated and difficult to manage in the past year with the emergence of various variants that are more transmissible and infectious although Malaysia is about to achieve its herd immunity in the population of 32 million people since the nationwide vaccination rollout in February 2020.
Similarly to the Covid-19 pandemic, the spread of misinformation and disinformation related to the disease and tonnes of conspiracy theories began appearing all over social media and digital space have also created an infodemic. The World Health Organisation (WHO) identified that the infodemic related to Covid-19 is defined as “too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak.”
Misinformation and disinformation of Covid-19 can cause a lot of confusion and dangerous misleading information that can influence risk-taking behaviours to harm public health as well as mistrust in health authorities, the press and undermines the public health response to mitigate and manage Covid-19 pandemic.
The report shall attempt to understand better and delve deeper into the impacts of the infodemic related to Covid-19 affecting newsrooms in Malaysia over the past two years and understanding the ways and methods adopted by the newsrooms to address misinformation/disinformation.
Since 2020, the Perikatan Nasional administration pledged to take on misinformation and disinformation more seriously to tackle the spread of misleading information on Covid-19 and since the rollout of national vaccination program on February 2021 in the midst of the emergency, the government imposed a special emergency ordinance to combat infodemic.
Anyone charged for spreading “fake news” faces a maximum fine of RM100,000 and up to three years in prison. The ordinance makes it a crime for anyone who “creates, offers, publishes, prints, distributes, circulates or disseminates any fake news” that would cause fear in the public.
Although the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 was repealed in 2019 during Pakatan Harapan’s administration, the ordinance was established on top of the existing laws that can be used against misinformation and disinformation such as Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and the archaic Sedition Act 1948.
A more complicated gatekeeping
Leslie Lau, executive editor of MalayMail admitted that the Covid-19 infodemic has made it more challenging for journalists and editors in terms of gatekeeping of information with fact-checking and verification.
“I think generally, most of us at MalayMail, we will stick to the official sources i.e. whether WHO or Ministry of Health. It was only last year, it wasn't that much of a problem, it is mostly this year.
“Last year I think there was...you could sense more faith in the system but this year particularly the anti-vaxx and ivermectin lobbyists have grown. I'm glad for one thing that among my colleagues in MalayMail and all of us, none of us are anti-vaxxers and that definitely helps,” Lau said.
He added that despite the pressure from readers to publish their opinions to push for alternative treatments and claims to treat Covid-19, MalayMail made a decision early on and even among the editors, they were just an unspoken consensus that while freedom of speech is one thing, the letters that came in from readers or lobby groups for Ivermectin, the editorial decided not to publish them in view of public good.
During the special parliamentary session in July 2021, several opposition MPs from Pakatan Harapan were pushing the Health Ministry to allow the use of Ivermectin as an off-label use to treat Covid-19. A clinical trial on the use of the anti-parasitic drug by the Ministry of Health Malaysia and the Institute for Clinical Research (ICR) initiated a multicentre open-label randomized controlled trial.
“We did cover minimally these ivermectin lobbyists but definitely from the standpoint of the Health Ministry’s response to it, rather than being seen as promoting or helping them.
“My feeling was that a lot of these guys were just desperate. I received phone calls from people I least expected to promote ivermectin, and say why are we so negative about it or not covering it. I think in a way, it wasn't difficult. This is unproven, this is not science. It was just nonsense,” Lau said.
Meanwhile, the standpoint of the print media organisation is also parallel with the views by MalayMail on infodemic. Hussamuddin Yaacub, owner and managing editor of the Malay language newspaper Sinar Harian, explained that their policy is to avoid breaking news because when you start to compete for a “breaking news” environment.
“We have to verify the stories, and that is why now for Sinar Harian, we are more cautious with this. When you discuss the competition for breaking news, because we don't really depend on digital and most of our income comes from the print and all our ad revenue comes from the print.
“I think in a way this is also positive, we let other people make blunders. If you want to see the truth, wait for Sinar's reports,” he said.
Hussamuddin reiterated that print media organisations are conditioned in the environment that the industry is governed by the Home Ministry for many years. Under the Printing, Press and Publications Act 1984, the Home Ministry and the minister have the power to revoke or award printing licenses to media companies.
He also said that print media have been trained under that situation that the Home Ministry will call up the writer, the editor, the printer and the distributor for questioning in the case of misreporting or sensitive reports that led to their policy to exercise more caution in dealing with misinformation and disinformation.
“We have been trained to support the government of the day so we have to refer to the official source. For example, if you see the editorial stand of Sinar on anti-vaccines, from day one, we tried to avoid controversies.
“We build the company to this level and we should not make mistakes. We are a bit conservative. We don't really go for number one, because to be number one, you have to break every rule. The fear factor that governs us. The company's reputation is supreme,” Hussamuddin stressed.
Limited access of information for journalists
Covid-19 pandemic in Malaysia saw at least three different implementations of nationwide lockdowns and restricted movements of the people to curb the spread of the infection. This situation complicates the work of journalists and media organisations to ascertain myriads of queries and information related to Covid-19.
Ng Ling Fong, managing editor of Malaysiakini concurred that the lack of transparency and access to relevant authorities like the Health Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office during the previous Perikatan Nasional administration led by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, only allowed selected media organisations particularly official government media to access to ministers and ministries.
“When there are less press conferences, we will have less opportunity to meet, to get information, to clarify certain issues especially on Covid-19 related information with the person in charge from the ministries.
“Although some may argue that we can still contact them through phone calls or emails, it's up to them whether they want to reply or not, they will pick and choose the information that they want to reveal to the media.
“Unless you ask during the press conference, the journalists can still continue to pressure them to answer should they try to avoid it. We noticed that the frequency of press conferences held by the Health Ministry started to move from daily to weekly, it has become less and less (frequent),” Ng said.
At the beginning, Ng mentioned that government press conferences related to Covid-19 were open to all and the press were allowed to ask questions freely. Soon after that, the press had to submit the questions earlier to the person-in-charge in the Health Ministry to choose the questions to be asked during the press conference.
Malaysiakini has also published a series of explainer stories called “KiniGuide” in the attempt to provide a more in depth reporting and descriptive in the explainer articles focusing on the Covid-19 pandemic and the vaccines. The articles were also translated across all major languages in Malay, English, Mandarin and Tamil.
MalayMail’s Leslie Lau echoed the sentiments from Malaysiakini that the restrictions of movements during lockdowns made it more difficult for newsrooms and disrupted the process of news gathering in the midst of the pandemic. He said that the situation has caused newsrooms to be more reliant and becoming more vulnerable to manipulation by fake news to show certain things that are happening.
“Sometimes when you let your guard down, you end up publishing news that is not quite accurate. This was the case even before Covid-19, but I think it has accelerated especially because of how news media companies are under tremendous financial strain.
“To give you an example, I saw on social media, people taking photos of homeless people in KL, and in normal situations, you would send reporters down there to find out whether it is true or not. Which I did, but it is difficult to find as well. You could see some places where there were homeless people but it's difficult to get access to information,” Lau added.
He also explained that it was difficult to get access to people for an interview and the concern was to protect journalists from getting Covid-19 and in reality, newsrooms have fewer reporters and work longer hours. Lau understands that such a scenario makes it even more difficult to realise what is happening on the ground.
“It's really difficult because the editors do not have enough time to monitor (news) and we do not have enough resources to see what is happening out there.
“I think it is a tremendous strain but it presents a conundrum that traditional journalism means you need the time and space to work, and find the real stories. Right now with the competition out there and the challenge of verifying these stories, it's really tough.”