“Fake news is our enemy”: Mericio Akara

“Fake news is our enemy”: Mericio Akara

Legal threats, police violence and 'fake news' all identified as threats to media freedom, at a gathering of media professionals in Balibo. (Image/Robert Baird)

BALIBO, 16 October 2019 (TATOLI) — Timor’s press council, and the government secretary for state media, have used the anniversary of the killing of five foreign journalists to take aim at the latest scourge to media freedom: misinformation and so-called ‘fake news’.

The comments came during a gathering of the country’s media in Balibo, where the five men were shot and stabbed to death by invading Indonesian forces on October 16, 1975.

Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie of Australia’s Nine News, and Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, and Anthony Stewart of Seven News, were killed while pleading for mercy, prompting a global outcry. Journalist Roger East, who arrived to investigate the killings, was also killed in Dili.

A short distance from that bloody scene in Balibo, Timor’s press council (CI) hosted a two-day seminar reflecting on the tragedy. CI Chairman Virgilio da Silva Guterres urged local reporters not to take their relatively new freedoms for granted.

“The Balibo Five, their struggle [was] to share information. But these days, journalists, society is different. The difference now is disinformation… some call it ‘hoax’ news, some call it ‘fake news’,” he said.

The Secretary of State for Social Communication, Merício ‘Akara’ Juvenal dos Reis, said the Balibo Five had died as martyrs.

“Our people consider they fought as heroes, who gave their lives, in contributing daily news reports, to support our independence struggle. So they’re a part of our history,” he said.

Mr Akara — the State Secretary responsible for state media including RTTL TV, community radio and TATOLI — said the country’s freedoms won in 1999 were being undermined by misinformation online.

“We need to promote a healthy democracy…and so ‘hoax news’ should be our enemy.” – Secretary of State for Social Communication, Merício ‘Akara’ Juvenal dos Reis (Image/Robert Baird)

“We need to promote a healthy democracy, [promote] trust, and so ‘hoax news’ should be our enemy, always,” he said.

In an interview with TATOLI, he said that, at its extremes, ‘fake’ news can lead to outbreaks of violence.

“It can create more tension. It’s not educative. It can put people down. And some people may believe [it], and that’s how ‘hoax news’ contributes to a situation that isn’t healthy,” he said.

“Various forms of pressure” on press: RSF

Both Messrs. Akara and Guterres agreed Facebook was the primary source of false information, although they declined to give specific examples. 

Timor-Leste has strong protections for freedom of expression and the press embedded in its constitution. In its annual Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked the young country’s media as the most free in Southeast Asia, noting significant improvements in 2019; but the country ranked only 84th worldwide. 

“Various forms of pressure are used to prevent [Timor-Leste] journalists from working freely, including legal proceedings designed to intimidate, police violence, and public denigration of media outlets by government officials or parliamentarians,” the judges declared.

Mr Guterres said Timor’s press is largely free to carry out their jobs, but admitted “draconian” media laws remain a major barrier. And he said police can act arbitrarily to intimidate reporters.

“Journalists and police, we cross every day in the field…and we want to have a mutual understanding…instead of [PNTL] using violence against journalists in chaotic situations,” he said.

In response, he said the press council has agreed on a Memorandum of Understanding with Timor’s national police, PNTL. The MOU — modelled on a similar document between the Indonesian press and that country’s police — is expected to be signed in the coming weeks.At the seminar, TATOLI approached a number of Timorese journalists to offer their own examples of fake news. One print reporter, who did not want to give her name, gave a blunt assessment:

“If you want to talk about fake news, you have to look first at the Facebook pages of [Timor’s] political parties,” she said.


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