IO – The true measure of a newspaper, its editors and journalists is not just its ability to print stories. Most important is the paper’s ability to deliver fact driven news and strive for objectivity about the people and events being covered.
The New York Times, which is widely respected by its readership worldwide, usually meets these professional standards. However, in the case of Richard Paddock’s recent article in that paper, “Indonesian Defence Chief, Accused of Rights Abuses, Will Visit Pentagon”, anybody who knows anything about Indonesian politics and its history would have little trouble in roundly criticizing him for being biased. His editors should also be criticized for allowing the article to be published without more rigorous fact checking.
The New York Time’s motto, “all that’s fit to print”, implies its news coverage is impeccable and one should trust it. Unfortunately Mr. Paddock’s article in question is anything but fit it is simply sloppy journalism.
The fact Mr. Paddock found it necessary to put “accused of human rights abuses” into the headline is one of the more interesting aspects of his story, especially since those accusations are ancient, more than two decades old in fact, and most importantly, happen to be accusations that were never proven to be true. But if one were to read the headline, a reader could easily be led to believe those accusations have merit-otherwise, why bother to have it be one of the main features of the story?
Mr. Paddock clearly shows his bias in the article when he categorically claims that “for two decades, Prabowo Subianto, a former general, was a pariah in international affairs.”
Such a shockingly strong statement does not weigh up against the facts. The editors of the New York Times should have done some basic research: the only country in the world that ever denied him entry was the United States, and since becoming minister of defence he has been a state guest of UAE, Turkey, India, France, Austria, Russia, China and Japan amongst other countries. He has always been warmly welcomed in his travels, and that long list now includes the United States.
A lesser known fact is that the retired general, who served two tours of duty in East Timor in the earlier parts of his career as a junior officer, became a good friend of Xanana Gusmao when he rose to the presidency of his country. As a leader of the East Timorese resistance movement, Gusmao was a nemesis of Prabowo during the conflict years. Meeting for the first time on a conference stage in Jakarta in 2002, Prabowo showered compliments on Gusmao, warmly embraced him in public and before the press, and the two went on to stay in touch for many years later.
The fact that Prabowo reached out to Gusmao and the latter would one day call him a friend says a lot about his character. And the fact East Timor’s president showed his respect for Prabowo reveals a lot about his past behavior on the battlefield there which, according to those who served with him, was exemplary.
Yet Mr. Paddock seems to have a different opinion than East Timor’s national hero. In his article he notes that Prabowo was accused of atrocities in East Timor. But he fails to properly research these accusations.
Who, exactly, made these accusations? Were they ever proven? Obviously not. What about the East Timorese-did they ever make similar accusations? Again, the answer is no. And obviously, Gusmao, as president of his nation, would have never agreed to be seen on international television with Prabowo had he thought he were a war criminal.
Mr. Paddock also writes that “in a surprise move, the president who twice defeated him, Joko Widodo, named him minister of defence a year ago this month. In part, Mr. Paddock is correct that the president did this to build a majority coalition in the National House of Representatives.
But the president brought Prabowo into his cabinet for another reason: because he trusts him and his capabilities. During Prabowo’s years as opposition leader under Jokowi’s first term in office, he was never overly critical or tried to undermine the president. That he could be trusted to remain loyal to the president should he become a minister of defence was never in doubt. As for his capabilities, if Mr. Paddock bothered to interview retired officers who served under him, he would have learned Prabowo earned great respect during his career in the military.
Mr. Paddock also raises the issue of Prabowo’s involvement in his military unit’s kidnapping of university student leaders involved in leading the 1998 anti Suharto protests. This was under the strict orders of then president Suharto who, as the supreme commander-in-chiet of the Armed Forces, hoped to weaken the student opposition.
It was before a military tribunal after the fall of Suharto that Prabowo took command responsibility for those kidnappings. But there is another story behind this story, one that Mr. Paddock fails to mention. As witnessed by those serving under Prabowo, once he received his orders from Suharto he made it a point with his troops that the kidnapped students should not be harmed. In fact, some of those students went on to become members of Prabowo’s political party.
Another backstory, not well known by the public, is that Suharto wished to have Prabowo’s men kidnap Bambang Harymurti, one of Indonesia’s more promiment journalists. Mr. Harymurti recalls that time, but rather than kidnap him, Prabowo paid him a visit and promised he would never be kidnapped under his watch.
Instead of painting Prabowo as a dark figure and carelessly writing about allegations that were concocted by the general’s political enemies of the past, Mr. Paddock should have written about Prabowo’s sincere and long-standing desire to strengthen ties with the United States. Steeped in Western culture and history, educated in London during his teen years, and having received military training in the United States, Prabowo has a deep understanding and appreciation of America’s democratic traditions as well as its critical role as a Pacific power. And, like many Asian leaders, he believes a stronger presence of the United States in the Indo Pacific is a crucial factor for ensuring regional peace and security in the 21st century.