Saturday, January 25, 2003

Bali, terrorism, and the Indonesian media

Journalism Asia published by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
EXCERPTS

By Andreas Harsono and Eriyanto, Indonesia

ABOUT 12 hours after bombs had exploded and killed 202 people on Kuta beach in Bali, the Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir held a press conference inside a mosque in the ancient Javanese city of Solo.

Along with dozens of other Muslim ulemas, Ba’asyir said, “We deplore such a brutal bombing. Let the police do the investigation. But we happened to gather here this morning and did an analysis. We concluded that those powerful bombs were made by a party that has a sophisticated ability in bomb making.”

“These bombs, according our final analysis, were made by American agents.

The Americans did this brutal bombing to justify their allegations that there are so-called Muslim terrorists in Indonesia.”

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country. Its Muslim majority is widely seen to be moderate and not pleased with the way bin Laden interprets the Islamic jihad. But they also detest the way the American government supports Israel or suppresses President Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

When the bombs exploded last October 13, 2002, the Indonesian media had immediately headlined the Bali attack. The Jakarta-based Elshinta radio managed to get a telephone interview with Ba’asyir in which he said, “I call on my Muslim brothers to condemn America.”

By making those statements, Ba’asyir became a media favorite. He was the first person to offer an explanation when most Indonesian journalists —many of whom had limited access and funding to cover the bombing site— tended to devour any explanation, whether right or wrong, about the possible bombers. One week later Indonesian police arrested Ba’asyir.

Three Theories
Three theories about the bombing were current in the Indonesian media. The first said it was the handiwork of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. US President George W. Bush, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, and Indonesian Minister of Defense Matori Abdul Jalil publicly aired their suspicion that Al Qaeda and the Indonesian group Jemaah Islamiyah were responsible.

American, Singaporean and Malaysian media generally subscribed to the first theory. News organizations like Time magazine, the Associated Press, Malaysia’s state-controlled media and Singapore’s Straits Times repeatedly wrote about Al Qaeda involvement in Bali although material evidence had not been found yet. Most of their sources were anonymous intelligence people.

The second theory was Ba’asyir’s own, about the bombing’s being the work of American agents. Leaders of the neo-Wahabi-oriented Justice Party, Hizbut Tahrir, Islam Defenders Front, and some legislators from President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s political party supported this theory.

They said only America has the capability to put the bomb together. Many Muslim-flagged media in Indonesia questioned several “strange coincidences” such as a US State Department travel warning issued several hours prior to the bombing or why no American citizen was killed.

Muslim-oriented newspapers such as Republika Daily as well as Sabili and Suara Hidayatullah magazines were consistent in their publication of stories supporting the second theory.

The third theory blamed the Indonesian military. Indonesian soldiers, notorious for their human rights record during Soeharto’s rule, allegedly tried to create instability in Indonesia and to push the Megawati government to pass the long-delayed anti-terrorism bill.

Muslim scholar Nurcholish Madjid of the Paramadina University mentioned this possibility in an interview with the New York Times. This speculation, however, appeared to have dissipated after the Indonesian military commander swore in a media conference that “no Indonesian generals” were involved in the bombing.

Pictures in Our Heads
The Indonesian police did not begin their work with any theory in mind. The National Police appointed Inspector General Made Mangku Pastika, a three-star cop with international experience and himself a Balinese, to head the investigation task force -involving 500 Indonesian and 100 police officers from various countries.

Through careful police work, the police as of January 2003 had arrested 30 people allegedly connected with the Bali bombing. Five were considered to be key persons in the Bali bombing. The police are still after 10 other suspects.

Indonesian mainstream publications such as Kompas, Media Indonesia, Suara Pembaruan, Jawa Pos and Tempo, reported the police information. Jakarta’s television also covered the arrests and chose not to speculate. Hersubeno Arief of Metro TV said that his station preferred to take the police accounts at face value because their information could be verified.

But the evidence and the arrest did not stop newspapers such as Republika, Sabili, Suara Hidayatullah, and Jurnal Islam from subscribing to the conspiracy theory and questioning police findings. They reported that the police could only arrest the “actors” of the bombing but not the mastermind. These publications continuously reported that the real mastermind could only be a big country with sophisticated intelligence networks, modern weapons, and huge resources.

Western media have not always transcended their biases. Just one day after the Bali bomb, when the Indonesian police had not yet said anything about its findings, many international media organizations were already accusing Al Qaeda. But a media bias should be criticized rather than “balancing” it with another bias.

The theory that the Bali bombing was carried out by American agents has not been abandoned by Indonesian publications like Republika despite the admission by Amrozi, Abdul Azis and Ali Imron of their involvement. Maulani himself published a book along with other conpiracy theorists. It sold like hot cakes.

The American public affairs journalistWalter Lippman in his 1923 book entitled Public Opinion had said that people tend to have “pictures in [their] heads.” We look for facts that suit those pictures and which tend to support our established views. Journalists and editors at Republika, Sabili, Suara Hidayatullah, and Jurnal Islam, had pictures in their heads that the US did the Bali bombing, not villagers like Amrozi, and they tried to suit the facts to this belief.

Abu Bakar Ba’asyir might now have read Lippmann’s book, but he knew exactly how to use that fact to his advantage.


Andreas Harsono was managing editor of the defunct Jakarta-based Pantau magazine. Eriyanto was one of the editors of Pantau magazine.

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