Thursday, September 01, 2011

Indonesia’s Religious Violence

The Reluctance of Reporters to Tell the Story

‘In an average Indonesian newsroom, most media workers identify closely with an Islamic and nationalist identity.’

By Andreas Harsono
Nieman Reports

On Sunday morning, February 6, 2011, about 1,500 men approached a house in Cikeusik village in West Java, about a seven-hour drive from Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. The villagers were led by Idris bin Mahdani of the Islamist militant Cikeusik Muslim Movement. Twenty members of the Ahmadiyah religious community were inside the house and guarded by police.

"Infidels! Infidels! Police go away!" bin Mahdani shouted at the 30 or so police officers who surrounded the house.

The Cikeusik police chief, Muh Syukur, tried to persuade bin Mahdani not to attack. Bin Mahdani waved him away. As soon as the chief left, bin Mahdani led the mob inside the compound, shouting, "Banish the Ahmadiyah! Banish the Ahmadiyah!"

The Ahmadiyah are a minority sect who identify themselves as Muslims but differ with other Muslims as to whether Muhammad was the "final" monotheist prophet. Many mainstream Muslims perceive the Ahmadiyah as heretics, and their faith is banned in several countries, including Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

An amateur video shows what happened when the mob entered the Ahmadiyah compound. Deden Sujana, the Ahmadiyah's security adviser, confronted bin Mahdani and hit him in the face. This prompted the villagers to start throwing stones. Stepping back, bin Mahdani took out his machete. The Ahmadiyah men used bamboo sticks and stones, but were in no position to stop the large mob. In less than five minutes, the villagers overpowered the sect's men; they caught several of them, ordered them to strip naked, and several villagers beat them brutally with sticks. These beatings can be seen on the video. A teenager took a large stone and smashed the head of an Ahmadiyah man lying on the ground. They also burned the house, two cars, and a motorcycle. Three Ahmadiyah men—Tubagus Chandra, Roni Pasaroni and Warsono—died and five others were seriously injured.

Reporting the Attack

By Monday morning word of the attack had reached Java's main cities, and news media published and broadcast stories about it. Jawa Pos, Kompas, Pikiran Rakyat, Republika, and Suara Merdeka, five of the largest newspapers in Java, as well as TV One and MetroTV, Indonesia's most important news channels, used the word bentrokan or "clashing" in describing what happened, leaving the impression that it was a fair fight. The channels broadcast the first part of the amateur video—showing villagers throwing stones—but they did not show the killing.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera, ABC Australia, Associated Press Television Network, BBC and CNN used the verb "attack" in their reporting, and this word helped them place the news story in the context of the rise of Islamist violence in Indonesia. They blurred the brutal video scenes, but they broadcast them. Al Jazeera even broadcast a report on Islamist attacks against Christian churches and Ahmadiyah properties in Indonesia.

Welcome to post-Suharto Indonesia where impunity for violence against religious minorities has fostered larger and more brutal attacks by Islamist militants. According to the Communion of Churches in Indonesia, there have been attacks on more than 430 churches since President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took office in 2004. According to Jemaah Ahmadiyah Indonesia, the national Ahmadiyah association, mobs have attacked Ahmadiyah properties more than 180 times since President Yudhoyono issued a decree in June 2008 restricting the Ahmadiyah's religious activities. More than 80 percent of these attacks took place on Java, the main island of Indonesia. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged Yudhoyono to act against these militants, to rein in religious violence, and revoke the 2008 decree.

On the day the reports about the Cikeusik attack were first broadcast, an Ahmadiyah activist who was meeting with me complained about Metro TV. He had given the Cikeusik footage to Metro TV earlier that day. In their broadcast, this Jakarta channel toned down the atrocities. This activist let me know that his friend, the Ahmadiyah cameraman who had shot the video, had risked his life to record the violence. He felt that the Indonesian public should bear witness to such atrocities, especially since hundreds of Ahmadiyah properties had been damaged.

This video—and the news coverage that resulted—reminded me of another amateur video that showed Indonesian soldiers torturing two West Papuan farmers. It was released in October 2010 and broadcast on international media, but no Indonesian station showed it. The incident had taken place on May 30 when Battalion 753 soldiers arrested Tunaliwor Kiwo and Telangga Gire in West Papua's Puncak Jaya regency. In the 10-minute video, the soldiers are seen kicking Kiwo's face and chest, burning his face with a cigarette, applying burning wood to his penis, and holding a knife to Gire's neck. In testimony videotaped later, Kiwo describes the torture he suffered for two more days before he escaped from the soldiers on June 2. Soldiers also tortured Gire, who was released after his wife and mother intervened.

If Jakarta's mainstream news media think they still play the role of gatekeeper in this Internet age, they should realize how rapidly that role is diminishing. Raw video files of the Cikeusik violence were uploaded quickly onto YouTube. One video went viral; 40,000 viewers watched it in just 24 hours. Some users copied the video from YouTube and uploaded it on their accounts. This digital dimension broadened the reach of news about the Cikeusik attack and prompted the Indonesian police to remove some high-ranking police officers in charge of Pandeglang regency and Banten province, where the violence occurred.

That same week Islamist militants attacked three churches in Temanggung, central Java, injuring nine people, including a Catholic priest. In Bangil, a small town in eastern Java, Sunni militants attacked a Shia school, the largest Shia facility on Java.

Given the frequency of such attacks, the international news media took up the story of Muslim violence in Indonesia. Their coverage shook the image of Indonesia as a "moderate Muslim" country. Scot Marciel, the United States ambassador to Indonesia, issued a statement deploring religious violence and encouraging President Yudhoyono to uphold the rule of law in Indonesia. The message he delivered was in stark contrast to the one that President Barack Obama had given in his Jakarta speech three months earlier when he highly praised Indonesia's "religious tolerance."

Probing Self-Censorship

The question confronting journalists in Indonesia is how to explain what can only be seen as their selective self-censorship on stories involving religious freedom. Recently, Lawrence Pintak, a professor at Washington State University, and Budi Setiyono, with the Pantau Foundation in Indonesia, wrote about the findings from a nationwide survey in which 600 Indonesian journalists were asked about their perceptions of Islam in the context of their work and personal lives. (The paper, "The Mission of Indonesian Journalism: Balancing Democracy, Development, and Islamic Values" appeared in the April 2011 issue of the International Journal of Press/Politics.) No survey of this scale on the topic had been done before.

What this survey revealed offers insights that help get at the question of self-censorship, including these findings:
  • In an average Indonesian newsroom, most media workers identify closely with an Islamic and nationalist identity. Asked to complete the sentence, "Above all, I am a(n) …" the primary identity cited by about 40 percent of respondents was "Indonesian" (40.3 percent) and "Muslim" (39.7 percent). Only 12 percent said they were a "journalist" first.
  • When asked if they supported banning the Ahmadiyah sect, 64 percent of the surveyed journalists said yes.
When I saw that figure of 64 percent, it reminded me of a conversation I'd had with a newspaper editor in Jakarta who was a Christian. She told me that she was shocked when her chief editor, a Muslim, told an editorial meeting, "Our policy is to eliminate the Ahmadiyah. We have to get rid of the Ahmadiyah."

Learning this explained why the West Papua and Cikeusik videos were not shown on Indonesian channels. Some of the broadcasters have explained that they didn't want to broadcast the West Papua torture video since it might create a negative impression of Indonesian rule over West Papua. Some contended that they didn't show the Cikeusik video because doing so might have incited violence.

Media Freedom

The Sukarno (1949-1965) and Suharto (1965-1998) dictatorships controlled Indonesia's media through publishing licenses. A newspaper that violated the restrictions would lose its license. According to Pintak and Setiyono, in 1997, near the end of the Suharto rule, about 7,000 journalists worked for fewer than 300 print outlets, the state radio broadcaster, and 11 TV networks owned by Suharto's children or cronies. After Suharto stepped down from power in May 1998, his successor as president, B.J. Habibie, opened up the news media as he lifted restrictions. Today, there are some 30,000 journalists, more than 1,000 print publications, 150 TV stations, and 2,000 radio stations. The report's authors portray it as "a media free-for-all."

Islamist organizations, which were repressed since the early 1960's, also used this media freedom—expanding their own media—to spread their Salafian messages. Their propaganda quickly gained influence in spreading intolerance in Indonesia. The Islamists are also aided by some in the mainstream media. Militant groups such as Laskar Jihad, Front Pembela Islam, Hizbut Tahrir, and Jemaah Islamiyah were established, frequently attacking Christian churches, Ahmadiyah mosques, Buddhist temples, and other minorities.

Local news media near the Cikeusik attack played a role in determining how other reporters would tell this story. They circulated news reports that the Cikeusik violence was fabricated to discredit Indonesian Muslims. At the trial of 12 defendants accused of participating in the Cikeusik attack, Ade Armando, a communication lecturer at the University of Indonesia, testified that journalists from Republika, Voice of Islam, and Anteve twisted a statement by Deden Sujana to make him sound like the provocateur of the attack. He described how news coverage of the event had cast the Ahmadiyah men as aggressors, not victims.

On July 28, the Serang district court found the 12 village men guilty on various charges, including public incitement, illegal possession of sharp weapons, destruction of property, maltreatment of others, individual assault, participating in an assault, and involvement in an attack. None of the defendants were charged with murder or manslaughter. The court sentenced those who were found guilty to between three and six months. Two of the 12, including the teenager who smashed the large stone against a man's head, walked free that day. The reason: time they had already served. The court also found Sujana guilty of inciting the attack and sentenced him to six months in jail.

Bad habits die hard. Lifting controls doesn't always change the way journalists handle themselves. In Java, their bosses encourage self-censorship in an attempt to stay in the good graces of those in power, including the Muslim clerics. Why should they change the way their newsrooms work when they have produced so much money during the Suharto era? Even though it is a free-for-all with government restrictions lifted, journalists continue to use their religious and nationalist reflexes in their newsrooms.

Andreas Harsono, a 2000 Nieman Fellow, is a consultant in Jakarta for the New York-based Human Rights Watch and chairs the board of the Pantau Foundation, which conducted the nationwide survey of Indonesian journalists for Pintak and Setiyono. He was managing editor of the Jakarta-based Pantau magazine, a monthly newspaper about media and journalism.

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