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Journalism under Digital Siege

World Press Freedom Day - Journalism under Digital Siege

Today is World Press Freedom Day, a day to remind governments of the need to respect their commitment to the freedom of the press. At the same time, it is a day to reflect on the challenges that journalists face all around the world, as well as ethics in journalism and our role, as the public, in creating a free, diverse and independent media.

This year’s World Press Freedom Day focuses on the theme of “Journalism under Digital Siége.” We invited Ka Man Mak, founder of The Oslo Desk, to share her insight on the role of digital media in our society and on some of the threats and challenges that are prominent in the field.

Ka Man Mak created a safe space for empowering voices which weren’t heard in the mainstream media, giving a fair representation of the multicultural society we live in.

By being an online magazine what were your major challenges when starting? Were you taken seriously ?

Ka Man Mak - The major challenges were for example finding the right people in certain expertise areas to build The Oslo Desk with me, funding is continuously an issue and I guess having to take on a substantial amount of ethical responsibility when publishing every article.

Without any backing and the lack of resources, you feel pretty exposed. And a lot of the work I particularly do - the hard cases - exposes me to trauma and not having the mental health support for various reasons took a toll on me at times.

I am not sure if people took me seriously or not, but in the beginning, I was told that I couldn't become a journalist because of my lack of Norwegian language proficiency and many saw my venture as something hard to achieve. I got a lot of looks of pity or plain ignorance of what I and The Oslo Desk was about. So I set out to prove them wrong.

Free and independent journalism is the key to combat misinformation, in your opinion, how did the emergence of digital media change that?

As long as you have an internet connection, you have access to cheap or free digital tools to make any information available around the world, be it a website or a social media page. So no longer are newspapers and magazines the gatekeepers of truth and information, anyone can be a holder of truth, and that can be for good and bad. We already know about Cambridge Analytica where our private data is being used to psychologically manipulate us. So anyone who is creating content and information can create false information, and truth can be twisted and be inappropriately labeled as fake news. So it can be confusing to understand the degrees of truth in the information you read.

How can we, the public, secure that the information is accurate and real? And how can journalists help us do that?

For the public, I would say check where the information you are reading is from. Is the publisher already biased or associated with anything that might suggest that the information can be unreliable? There are also plenty of reverse image tools to check if the footage that was spread is old or misused. I have received quite some footage from friends and family where I asked - how do you know it is real? Just because you trust your friend, doesn't mean that it is true. I have seen a gruesome video where a man was shot in the head, and the text said it was done by an Israeli soldier. I would find that questionable as there was no way of verifying the source who published it. So question question question, and be mindful of your own biases.

As for how the journalists can help the public do that, there are so many angles to this one. Journalists follow the code of ethics and strict regulations before publishing their work, and especially if they are working for a large newsroom, they would have a quality control workflow to make sure that all the evidence that are presented in the article are verified. So the public should already see all the evidence laid out before them and know where the information comes from. While thorough research and verification are important, trust needs to be built. I have so many people tell me that they have stopped reading the news because they don't trust this and that newspaper. That can be detrimental to any work that is published by the journalist or newsroom. Another way to look at this is to be transparent on the process to which the information was sourced and how the story came together so that the public understands the work behind it and the decisions that are made.

I would also invite the public to participate in a dialogue with the journalist should you discover something wrong in the piece or something to enhance the piece.

In your opinion, can digital media and the overload of information ever create a challenge? Can it put pressure on a journalist's work? What is the impact on quality?

I still believe that despite the myriad of information out there, the ethical framework that we as journalists work with is still a great defender of truth even in the digital world. Content creators are often not held accountable as journalists would otherwise. So quality journalism work has always been focusing on the process of how we come to find the truth and through what lens we understand the information we receive. The pressure I get is verifying and understanding the wealth of information in the length of time I have, the funding I get, and the resources I have as a freelance journalist.

At the same time we see the rise in digital threats such as hacking and surveillance on free and independent journalism. Are you worried?

Absolutely. With new technology being developed every day that can be used to harm journalists and newsrooms, this can cost a lot and bring on both physical and psychological harm. And not all journalists are cybersecurity tech-savvy people so we try to avoid the potential security risks, but given the nature of our work, we would always be a target. Since I am a freelancer and a woman of color working on tough topics, I am in an even more vulnerable situation than most. Once I received a threatening message through my personal blog which I suspect to be the stalker of the victim I wrote about and reported it to the police. I also notified my daughter's kindergarten at the time about the potential threat from the said man and was immediately told to remove my daughter from the kindergarten. The police, of course, couldn't do anything and thankfully after overexplaining the situation at the kindergarten, my daughter got to stay, and I wasn't harmed. I couldn't ignore any threat through digital communications coming my way.

The Oslo Desk and Humans for Humans both deal with issues that aren't in the mainstream media. How does The Oslo Desk bring a different approach to these subjects?

The Oslo Desk is very much based on my own multidisciplinary approach to journalism work in order to create a new narrative and facilitate dialogues for social changes. My background in environmental geoscience, market research for business purposes, and studying different teachings like peace journalism, constructive journalism and system journalism has shaped the way I look at recurring issues in our society and how to point accountability.

We collect evidence, look at the systemic or structural causes that have perpetuated the problems; and then bring those in power, experts and those subjected to the problem together to solve the problem. The latter part is usually conducted with NGOs and experts we are working with on certain topics so that The Oslo Desk focuses on documenting the progress and holds those in power accountable.

For example, the She Witness project was formed with Caritas Norge and Humans for Humans in order to shed a continuous light on violence in close relationships in Norway pertaining to women of colour.

Many would probably accuse me of activism work but I am redefining my own role as a journalist by leveraging my own knowledge and finding new meaning than just reporting.

So consequently, I'm redefining the newsroom's role in society. I would rather people see our work as a curator of information that seeks to push for progress and peaceful dialogues.

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