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Journalists, professors warn of increasing spread of disinformation in Visayas

Local media practitioners and academic professionals warned against the spread of disinformation in the Visayas especialy during the pandemic when, and shared ways to combat this during a virtual regional conference disinformation and democracy on Wednesday, March 17.

The conference was hosted by the University of the Philippines (UP) Visayas in partnership with the Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation, UPV Division of Humanities, UPV Information and Publications Office (IPO), DYUP 102.7 FM, Rappler’s MovePH, and the Daily Guardian.

Disinformation during disasters

Assistant Professor Dakila Kim Yee of UP Visayas Tacloban College tackled how rumors and "fake news" are most especially rampant during disaster situations.

He cited the prevalence of rumors in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) due to an increased demand for information and the absence of official lines of communication.

Yee stressed the importance of being critical about the content of disaster coverage in Eastern Visayas.

He expressed concern over the shutdown of the ABS-CBN regional stations and its consequences on combatting information manipulation in regions.

“The degree of insulation [hopefully] of [media] practitioners from politicians would really be important. And ABS-CBN provided that insulation from political influences," he said.

Derek Alviola, head of the University Integrated Media Center of the Visayas State University, echoed this, citing how the shutdown of the media giant and its regional stations paved the way for some local political families to control the news coverage in the region.

“Since the ABS-CBN regional group has been shut down, how will this affect the news consumption patterns of the people here inEastern Visayas? And probably that’s the reason why there’s an interest for some political families to establish their own media networks like radio stations or local TV networks,” Alviola said. 

He said that while internet access in the region is dismal, the spread of disinformation becomes easy because of free data. “The internet penetration of our area is contributory to disinformation.” Alviola said.

“When you have people who rely on free data for their news content, it will be easier to spread misinformation and disinformation. And I’m seeing this right now, with my own students and even those in the academe. That is something that we have to fix,” he added. 

Challenges in local media

Especially as elections draw near, Alviola highlighted the importance of keeping an eye on emerging media outlets owned by politicians, fly-by-night newspapers, and even cable television networks.

"The fight is not just on Facebook, it’s also happening in how they (political clans) are establishing their own local news network," Alviola said.

Local journalists not only have limited resources but also face attacks and threats that affect news coverage of disasters, politicians, and other pressing issues in the region, he said.

“The critical approach to covering local political and government issues are left with national media organizations like Rappler, the Philippine Daily Inquirer who have regional correspondents. But not all local journalists are doing that because people are also afraid,” Alviola added.

Alviola also mentioned the arrest of Tacloban journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio as an example of the threats faced by local media outlets who are critical of the government, as they are easily identified and targeted.

Aside from the attacks and threats to local journalists, Philippine Daily Inquirer Visayas correspondent Nestor Burgos Jr drew some parallels on these challenges faced by local media that got worse during the pandemic.

“Community press have shut down or have reduced their workforce, and most have been transforming into digital editions only [during the pandemic]. Journalists are also limited in coverage of the news. Most of us are working from home, reliant on online press conferences. So in terms of reporting, digging up stories, there are limitations now because of the pandemic,” Burgos said in a mix of English and Filipino. 

These challenges, according to Burgos, made it difficult for local journalists to be independent in the Visayas. 

The said community publications are smaller and have less resources, and are "generally less independent."

"Because they don’t have resources, they are dependent on ads. And many of these ads come from politicians or government offices,” Burgos said.

Building a credible audience

To counter this, community journalist Georgene Quilaton-Tambiga, a communication officer for Colegio de Sto Tomas-Recoletos in San Carlos City, stressed the importance of helping news consumers develop critical thinking. 

“How credible are the consumers of the media in our rural communities? While it takes time for a professional media practitioner and a journalist to build credibility, we are now at an age when we are also questioning the credibility of our people or audience,” Tambiga said. 

She said that academic institutions can take a more active role to help students and local news consumers to build up their credibility.

Tambiga added: "More so to develop critical thinking in analyzing news – what is 'fake news' from what is real. We should be the ones teaching students from the grassroots so they too can be credible reactors and commenters, not just those who read the headlines and react to the comment box like it’s nothing...thereby defeating actual unprofessional community media outfits."

Alviola said local unions among journalists, should be strengthened in the the Visayas including campus publications.

He added that there should be more research done by the academe and community media groups to help the general population, especially the youth, to understand the context of Philippine media and "fake news."  – with reports from  John Sitchon/