The plan to introduce bar codes for media companies, an initiative launched by the Indonesian Press Council announced on National Press Day in Ambon on Feb. 9, goes beyond simply fighting the proliferation of fake news.
It is intended to help to build the nation’s media and internet literacy.
It also shields media companies from unfair business practices in the increasingly fierce competition for lucrative digital ads. The bar-code system, contrary to what critics say, is a self-regulated policy designed to protect media companies’ reputations.
Journalists, or those who profess to practice the trade, will also enjoy protection from amateurs who are killing the profession, destroying the media business and worst of all, downgrading the value of press freedom.
Verification and the bar-code mechanism is one of the best answers to fighting fake news. A higher proportion of digital ad spending has been going to fake media outlets.
The now-defunct arrahmah. com, for example, generated as much as Rp 1.5 billion (US$112,500) each month from Google AdSense. The site, ran by four people, was blocked by the Communications and Information Ministry because of its radical content.
Many news media outlets with large newsrooms staffed by professional journalists receive peanuts in comparison.
These legitimate news outlets are struggling in the fierce media business against those who put out information that is hardly verified or supported by evidence, preying on the ignorance of readers who have difficulty distinguishing fake from real news.
Media verification, therefore, will not only shield the public from the tsunami of information but will also offer hope to those who supply the news and information to raise decent revenue to cover their operational costs.
The number of news media outlets, online and offline, has exploded, and some sort of verification must be mandated, for the good of the public and the industry. According to the Communications and Information Ministry, there are more than 500 news publications, 11 national TV networks, 394 regional TV stations, around 1,200 radio stations and 43,000 websites.
The Press Council has so far verified only 240 as valid and reliable news portals.
When it was announced, some journalists criticize the media barcode initiative as a throwback to Soeharto-regime way of controlling the press through a licensing system. They say this could undermine freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Bloggers and citizen journalists also fear that the policy would shut them completely out of the media business.
Critics say you cannot censor the internet and therefore cannot stop fake news in the digital world. That the council’s plan is doomed to failure.
Some criticism has come from the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), which questions the credibility of the council’s verification process as it focuses more on the administrative side and not so much on the content.
The proponents of the bar code insist that they are acting in the interests of the public, which is becoming increasingly alarmed by the proliferation of fake media outlets on the internet.
The Press Council is an independent agency comprising representatives of journalists, media proprietors and public figures. It is staying true to the spirit of self-regulation, but at the same time ensuring compliance by media outlets and journalists to the agreed laws and ethics.
Concerns of a return to a government censorship era are widely exaggerated. There is no government hand in the bar-code system.
As mentioned earlier, the move to introduce bar codes for verified media companies appears to be not only to battle fake news but also to educate the public.
It is almost impossible to block all fake news from the internet, but we can at least stop those who cash in on the lucrative ads spending through this unfair practice. The move by the ministry to block these sites, as in the case of arrahmah.com, starve them of revenue streams as they are withdrawn from Google AdSense.
The Press Council’s bar-code system complements the ministry’s move, which is more concerned with the spread of hate speech and radical messages.
Companies that advertise through the internet will also become aware of the consequences if their products appear in media outlets, courtesy of Google, that carry no bar code. They could be charged under the Money Laundering Law.
The ministry can impose sanctions on those platform companies, including internet giant Google, for placing with or distributing digital ads through unverified online media outlets. The ministry expects Google to cooperate with the government in cutting the financial source of online media that have no bar code.
Bloggers and citizen journalists should have no fear as long as they follow standard journalistic practices, including verification and covering both sides of a story. The Press Council will categorize them as press entities that enjoy protection under the 1999 Press Law. It’s a win-win proposition. Media outlets that legitimately practice good journalism will enjoy added value with the bar code as they will be more secure, better trusted and safer. The public, through greater media literacy, will also enjoy quality products.
Media outlets, now still struggling to make ends meet, will have a better chance of generating streams of revenue as they build their reputation and credibility, and ultimately, public trust.
The bar-code system seems like an idea that deserves a try.