Mass suicide of the Indonesian press

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Hersubeno Arief
Senior journalist, media and political consultant

The 2019 Presidential Elections expose Indonesian media and journalism as having entered their worst period in past-Reform history. The situation is even more depraved than the New Order era. Legal coopting and undue pressure by the people in charge, a partisan attitude and loss of idealism among media owners and journalists, have conspired to unknowingly result in a “mass suicide”. The Indonesian press is really in a state of emergency!

During the New Order era, the media was forced to submit to regime pressures. Nevertheless, the media continued to struggle, to maintain their idealism. Now, however, many tacitly support bad journalism voluntarily for various motives: becoming part of the regime and enjoying power, strictly for business, or pragmatism simply to see what they can get out of the people in power.

Journalists, editors, and media leaders with common sense and a critical attitude must bow down to the media moguls in power. The press is no longer a warrior for truth. This is the consequence of the media in an industrial era. The public has lost its wits, becoming apathetic, angry, losing its trust in the media in Indonesia. In this era of information abundance and the strengthening of social media as an alternative source of information, there is a real threat that the public will abandon conventional media if it does not change soon.

Some sanity remains amid the mass insanity. However, it is in a minority. Most of the honest ones are marginal media and not mainstream media, which succumb to the great crime of framing. In Indonesia, it is even worse: “twisting” and “issue-peddling”.

“Framing” is generally defined as the practice of putting a piece of information into such a context that the news that the readers or audience gets can be called “true” in a way, but it is not how the way things really are. Framing is usually taken by quoting some words and/or taking some pictures from a specific angle, so that the public perceives it differently. This is a subtle, “artistic” method.

“Twisting” is the sheer evil intent, twisting the facts around for specific purposes. There are many methods to do this, but they are generally extremely rough and violate all journalistic principles as well as insulting common sense. These methods include deliberately misquoting a statement, asking trap questions, interviewing improper sources, etc.

Twisting is generally followed by “issue-peddling”. Writers usually cooperate with a number of politicians or public figures who also exaggerate issues, ignoring the entirety of the fact. Furthermore, in order to complete the package of issues they are peddling, they incite community groups to protest and cover the protest massively, in order to trigger the occurrence of similar actions in other areas. After that, the relevant figure thus defamed is forced to apologize.

And the amazing thing is, after apologizing, the issue is resold by making it seem that the figure is incompetent because he continuously makes errors and has to apologize again. The noble attitude of the willingness to apologize, whether an error is actually made or not, is twisted again to discredit the figure as one with a weak attitude.

Deliberate or Accidental Misquoting?
The tirto.id webpage contained interesting coverage about “media madness” on Saturday (24/11). Unfortunately, such cases not only happen with local media, but also with foreign media that we would expect to be more neutral in viewing and reporting about our country’s issues. In the article titled “Pangkal Ucapan Prabowo Soal Kedubes Australia yang Keliru di Media” (“Origins of the Media’s Erroneous Reporting of Prabowo’s Statement about the Australian Embassy”), tirto.id exposes how the media (deliberately?) misquotes a statement made by Prabowo.

On 22 November 2018, BBC Indonesia published a reportage originally titled “Prabowo: Pemindahan Kedutaan Australia ke Yerusalem Bukan Masalah untuk Indonesia” (“Prabowo: The Moving of the Australian Embassy to Jerusalem Is Not a Problem for Indonesia”). Republika Online also published a reportage titled “Prabowo: Pemindahan Kedutaan Australia Bukan Masalah Bagi RI” (“Prabowo: Moving of Australian Embassy No Problem for RI”) on the same date. Viva News also issued an article with a similar title: “Prabowo Tak Masalah Kedutaan Australia Pindah ke Yerusalem” (“Prabowo Has No Problem if Australian Embassy Moves to Jerusalem”) on the next day, Friday 23 November 2018.

Other than national online media, the Australian website Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) also misconstrued Prabowo’s statement. On Thursday 22 November 2018, SMH published an article titled “Indonesian Presidential Candidate Says Jerusalem Move No Problem.” The error in concluding Prabowo’s actual statement started with the error in quoting his statement. In an interview session after having served as a speaker in the Indonesia Economic Forum at Shangri-La Hotel, Jakarta, on 21 November 2018, Prabowo was asked two questions in English:

Question:
With your military background, what do you think of Australia’s support of the US’ plan to establish a military port in Papua New Guinea (PNG)? Should Indonesia give it special attention? And how would you respond to Australia’s plan for moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?

Prabowo:
PNG is traditionally very close with Australia. So, I would say that it is an issue that must be settled between Australia, PNG, and the US. I don’t see it as a problem for Indonesia.

As for the moving of the Embassy, I have not read about Australia’s decision to move its Embassy to Jerusalem. As supporters of Palestine, we naturally have our own opinion. However, Australia is also an independent and sovereign country, therefore we need to respect their sovereignty.

Prabowo’s two answers were then mashed together: the answer for the question about Australia’s support of the US’ plan to open a military base in PNG, with the answer for the question about the movement of the Australian Embassy to Jerusalem. Prabowo now seems to support Australia’s intent to open its Embassy in Jerusalem.

This issue is then peddled by both politicians and the media. Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan – “PDIP”)’s Secretary General, Hasto Kristiyanto, made a press release titled “PDIP: Pernyataan Prabowo Setuju Pemindahan Kedubes Australia ke Yerusalem, Ahistoris” (“PDIP: Prabowo’s Statement that Agrees with the Movement of the Australian Embassy to Jerusalem is Ahistorical”).

Tuan Guru Bajang (TGB) Zainul Majdi, a Democrat politician formerly supporting Prabowo and defecting to Jokowi’s side, has also created his own press release to be distributed to the media. TGB said that Prabowo’s statement negates the entire history of Palestine’s struggle, which is closely related to Indonesia’s own struggles. “This is not just about the sovereignty of a friendly country, but also a national and religious issue that we need to care for as a nation,” TGB said.

Nearly all politicians from the incumbent’s group discuss this issue. Metro TV even put this up as a special highlight in its “Editorial”. The incumbent’s buzzer supporters also peddle this issue in social media: they launched the #PrabowoAntekZionis (“Prabowo is a Zionist Stooge”). Prabowo’s opponents know too well that Palestine is a very sensitive issue for Muslims, especially in urban areas. On the other hand, Prabowo’s voter base among in these areas is extremely strong. The impact of mixing facts and opinions even affect Prabowo’s own supporters: Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam – “FPI”) and Ulema’s National Fatwa Guardian Movement (Gerakan Nasional Pengawal Fatwa Ulama – “GNPF Ulama”) also censured Prabowo and questioned his statement. This twisting and issue peddling can be called a success.

Changing the Title
A number of foreign media that realized their error immediately change both the title and content of the article. BBC, for example, changed the title “Prabowo: The Moving of the Australian Embassy to Jerusalem Is Not a Problem for Indonesia” to “Pemindahan kedutaan ke Yerusalem, Prabowo hormati kedaulatan Australia” (“Australia Moves Embassy to Jerusalem, Prabowo Respects Australia’s Sovereignty”). SMH, which originally wrote “Indonesian Presidential Candidate Says Jerusalem Move No Problem” changed to “Presidential Candidate Says Indonesia Should Respect Australian Sovereignty on Embassy Move.

But what about media in Indonesia? There are no changes of title. True, later they amended the articles to include the complete version of Prabowo’s interview. However, there are no title revision, let alone an apology. In fact, they continue to showcase news of erroneous responses from a number of sources.

Other than Viva and Republika, many other media issued this erroneous news. The digital tracks are available everywhere: we only need to Google it, and we will find that the media performs the error en masse. For this particular issue, let us not prejudice: most of the error is probably due to the journalists’ limited understanding of English. Or perhaps, they simply copied and pasted a news item created by a random journalist. This is a common practice among journalists – everyone knows about it. Consequently, when one person entrusted to make the news get it wrong, everyone gets it wrong.

What we need to suspect is the peddling practice. It is obviously deliberate, because this is not the Prabowo becomes a victim of media twisting and peddling. The “Boyolali Face” case was also peddled to the bone by the media and the incumbent’s group, ditto Prabowo’s statement of feeling saddened because the most a High School graduate in Indonesia can aspire to is becoming an online ojek motorcycle transporter. Prabowo’s concern towards the future of Indonesia’s youths, and his desire to improve the fates of our youth, are twisted and peddled as an insult. Online transportation workers in several cities have been mobilized to protest against Prabowo.

The latest sensation is Prabowo’s statement of having trouble to raise credit from Bank Indonesia. This issue is also twisted and peddled cruelly in order to show off Prabowo’s “stupidity”, while what he means by saying “Bank Indonesia” is “Indonesian banks”. As a multinational entrepreneur, it is impossible that Prabowo does not understand that Bank Indonesia handles banking regulations instead of providing banking credit.

Prabowo is not the only victim of twisting and peddling of issues by the media. Candidate Vice President Sandiaga Uno also suffers from equally harsh treatment. He was bullied and protested for having stepped over the grave of one of NU’s founders, Kyai Bisri Syansuri. Other than that, a “hot potato” that the media is peddling is the charge of corruption leveled against Prabowo-Sandi’s Coordinator Spokesman, Dahnil Anhar Simanjuntak.

Such evil practices should not be allowed to continue. The media must be warned. Their games they are playing simply to support and preserve a power are just too dangerous. To recall and paraphrase the quote stated by New Zealand author Lance Morcan, the impact of media cooptation is simply horrible. We are partying and having fun while we poison our nation’s water supply. The damage will be thorough, ruining all the foundations of Indonesian living. That is a too high price to pay.