How Indonesian Media Covers Conflicts

(Insensitivity Kiils)

By Sirikit Syah

Since 1998, Indonesia has become one of the most conflicting nations in the world. In addition to that, at the same time, Indonesian media has gained its freedom after 32 years of being oppressed. Conflicts of SARA (Suku = ethnicity, Agama = religion, Ras = race, and Antargolongan = group), which were taboo in the New Order era, is no longer forbidden. They are often exposed as headlines or leads (on TV news), introducing an existence of hatred, which people had never been aware of before.

The people’s reactions are varied. They seem happy with the free press, but sometimes they complain that the press has gone too far. There is a love-and-hate relationship between the free press and the readers/viewers. One moment they consume, applaud, and believe in what they read/watch, another moment they are angry for what they read/watch and blame the free media. Lacking adequate education, many people get easily provoked or angered by what they consume in the news and take actions. These actions include the mobilization of  jihad army to area of conflict. People also attack press institutions and terrorize and intimidate journalists.

Recent data from Aliansi Jurnalis Independen states that pressures towards journalist have declined from the same period in last year, from 106 to 104 cases. But in 2000-2001 data, almost half numbers of the case (47) are pressures from the mass (communal violence). The police (18 cases), government (18), and military (6), altogether ranks number two as pressure group to journalists. The high number of communal pressures looks worse because there are more direct physical threats (24 cases) than indirect ones (23).

Multi Ethnicity

Even though there is a lot of political conflicts between political elites in Jakarta covered by the media (which mainly contain talking news), racial and religious conflicts have been dominating the media in the last 5 years. They are spread out in headlines (for newspapers), cover stories (in tabloids or newsmagazines), and as leads (in TV and Radio news).
Geographically, in the last four or five years, conflicts have happened in the Moluccas (especially in South Moluccas and the city of Ambon), Central Sulawesi (especially the town of Poso), West Kalimantan (the town of Pontianak), Central Kalimantan (especially the town of Sampit), and North Moluccas. East Timor, Aceh, and West Papua (Irian Jaya) have conflicts too, but they are mostly political rather than racial or religious. The conflicts in these areas are mostly between native/indigenous and the government; they bring up issues of separation.

Before going further into conflicts of races and religions, it is necessary to understand the nature of Indonesia. It has more than 14 thousands of islands, which are spread out between Asia and Australia and the oceans of Atlantic and Pacific. It has 2 of the 5 biggest islands in the world; Kalimantan (Borneo) and Irian (Papua), the west side of Papua belongs to Indoensia while the eastern part is known as Papua New Guinea. Other big islands are Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi (Celebes). East Timor, which has got its independence in 1999, is located in the eastern part of Timor island, the nearest of Indonesian islands to Australia.

The most populated island is Java. Because of its overpopulation, government has been implementing transmigration program for years, which mostly relocate Javanese people in other islands. Indonesia has more than 200 millions people, almost 90% of them are Moslem, and the rest are Christians, Catholics, Hindu, and Buddhism. There are over 300 different ethnicities and races; meaning different traditions, cultures, and languages. Thanks to the founding fathers, who established the Indonesian language (derived from Malay language) as our national language, in which everybody communicates with and understand each other.

Having been occupied by Dutch government for 350 years and by Japan for 3,5 years, Indonesia gained independence in 1945. But the declaration of unity, including the use of Indonesian language, among different ethnicities was made in 1928. West Irian became a part of Indonesian in 1963, and East Timor in 1975.

Racial & Religious Conflicts

Since its independence, Indonesia had never experienced racial and religious conflicts. There were some political conflicts (of separations) in the past, which had religious element in it, but those were not conflicts based on religion nor race. The escalation of racial and religious conflicts at the moment might be influenced by the independence of East Timor, the freedom of the press, and the new –but unfortunately weak- government.

The conflicts in West Kalimantan (Pontianak) and Central Kalimantan (Sampit) are clearly racial –between Dayak, Malay, and Madura tribes. The conflicts were mostly initiated by a criminal act followed by group revenge (vendetta). But many experts blamed the previous government for social and economical gaps and lack of education. In Central Sulawesi (Poso), the conflict is between Islam and Christian; initiated by some actors from other conflicting area (South Moluccas). So, in Poso, there had been no conflict between Islam and Christian citizens until these actors came and provoked the people. However, conflicts in the Moluccas (especially South Mollucas and Ambon) is said to be a mixture of both race and religion. There are elements of tribal frictions initiated by jealousy over economical achievements –Ambonise/Mollucas versus BBM (Bugis, Bhuton, Makasar); and of religious frictions between Moslems and Christians –even among Ambonise/Moluccas themselves.

In covering these conflicts, some Indonesian media tend to take side, especially before the introduction of Peace Journalism. Republika daily, which is published in Jakarta, for instance, becomes the Islamic voice for jihad in Moluccas/Ambon conflicts. Its mission was expressed through the choice of sources being interviewed, the main pictures on front page, and the language. At some points it even provoked Muslims in Java to take actions, such as going with their swords to the conflicting regions, where Moslems are believed to be victims of oppression and/or ethinic/religious cleansing.

On the other side, Kompas and Suara Pembaruan (both also published in Jakarta) which people know as owned by Chistians, proven to be moderate, and even peaceful, in covering religious conflicts. In addititon to always covering both sides, they choose words carefully and do not easily put conflict news as headlines. These efforts can be considered as hiding facts. Media Watch and Consumer Centre, a media watch organization, particularly noted that those papers semmed reluctant to mention the group identities of killers and victims and the number of casualties (to avoid further violence). MWCC even awarded Republika –which is quite one-sided- as one of the most objective mass media for its bravery to tell all and extensively (regardless its impacts).

Lembaga Konsumen Media (Media Consumers Board), another media watch organization –which I helped estblishing, on the other hand, gave awards for Kompas and Suara Pembaruan in 1999 and 2000. In 1999, both papers won FAIR Award (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), and in 2000 they won Peace Journalism Awards. This showed how even media watch groups have different perspectives.

In South Moluccas conflict, those three leading media (Republika, Kompas, and Suara Pembaruan) covered and published conflicts differently. Below is a research result taken from Kabar Kabar Kebencian (Hatred News) about this particular matter.

South Moluccas News, A Comparison

Media Dakwah
(Islamic Media) Republika Kompas Suara Pembaruan
Field – Moluccas conflict is described as religious war
– Violence and sadism of Christians towards Moslems is reconstructed
– Moslems help people in the Moluccas is exposed
– Casualties are more than 800 – There is a tragic descrition of the fate of Moslems in the Moluccas
– Violence and sadism of Christians towards Moslems is exposed
– The Moluccas is described as still being chaos
– Casualties among Moslems are 2084 – The conflict is described as initiated by a conflict among local politicians
– There are criticism towards government in handling the conflict
– Refusal of foreign intervention
– Casualties are about 800-2000 people – The conflict is described as not a conflict between Islam-Christian
– Moluccas is described as under control
– Casualties are 200 people.
Tenor – One sided
– Islamic perspective
– The sources (from Islamic side) are emotional and tragic
– Message is directed to Moslems – One sided
– Islamic perspective
– Sources from Islamic group are emotional and detail/explicit
– Message is directed to Moslems – Cover both sides
– Sources are from government elite
– Critical, inclusive, and nationalist
– Message is directed to government – One sided
– Perspective of local officials
– Formal, birocratic, credible
– Message is directed to Moslems and the press
Mode – Vulgar
– Hyperbolic
– Dispheumistic
– Connotative – Vulgar
– Comparative
– Hyperbolic
– Dispheumistic – Critical
– Implicit
– Metaphoric – Implicit
– Eupheumistic

During the Moluccas conflict, which was heightened by interference from foreign organizations/institutions, the media often used language as the sources wanted them. Below is a list of vocabularies, often used by the media:
– Red Group vs White Group
– Genocide
– Massacre
– Holocaust
– The most brutal war
– Systematic rapes
– Burned alive
– Sadistic
– Cutting of the body
– Eat the body and drink the blood.

These kinds of language still appeared in the conflict of Poso (Central Sulawesi). But in Sampit’s conflict (Central Kalimantan), which erupted in February 2001, the media has been less provocative in their diction. However, there are still some stereo types addressed to different tribes/ethnicity, as follows:

Maduresse (Migrants in Central Kalimantan / Sampit) Dayak (Indigenous People in Central Kalimantan / Sampit)
– Hardworking
– Religious / Moslems
– Bad tempered
– Criminal / ignore the law
– Strong solidarity (exclusive)
– Pesantren (Religious School) education – Lazy
– Christians and Pagans
– Soft tempered (until it gets the limit)
– Practice traditional law to solve problems/conflicts
– Inclusive
– Less educated

Peace Journalism Movement

People have accused the press of contributing to the escalation of conflicts. In 2000, many workshops, discussions, and seminars for journalists on Peace Journalism have been held, sponsored by foundations and institutions such as USAID, The Asia Foundation, and the British Council. They were held in Jakarta, Bandung, Semarang, Surabaya, and some other major cities in Indonesia. More than one hundred journalists have participated in these seminar and workshops.

In November 2000 in Surabaya, a Peace Journalism workshop was attended by 20 senior journalists, including managing and chief editors. Annabel McGoldrick and Jake Lynch from Peace and Conflict Forum led the workshops. At the end of the workshop, several journalists were selected to visit Central Sulawesi (Poso) to do an investigative reporting of the conflict happened in the area, by practicing Peace Journalism standards and guidelines

In Bandung, Aliansi Jurnalis Independen also held similar forum. Senior reporters, managing and chief editors from the media in conflicting regions were invited. In a neutral place like Bandung (West Java), journalists who have been separated by religions in their origins, united and discussed resolutions. In Ambon, for instnace, journalists can not cover in an area of different religion with her/himself. They can not interview sources of different religion either. They would be asked of their religion first. This leads to a separation of journalism practice –Christians and Moslems- which is not good but admitted as a way of surviving.

These workshops resulted in more peaceful coverage of conflicts. Jawa Pos, the second biggest papers in Indonesia put pictures of religious figures, which organizations were actually in warring conflicts, sat together smiling. The headlines were less provocative and more accurate. The pressure groups have become softened, following their leaders, and ended the physical frictions in grass roots.

A few months after the busy sessions of Peace Journalism workshops, a conflict of Dayak and Madura tribes erupted in Sampit (Central Kalimantan). Despite the big numbers of casualties –hundreds of people were killed- and the sadistic nature of the killings (as people could consume in western media and the Internet), Indonesian media chose its role as a ‘softener”. The majority of coverage were in feature format, mapping the conflicts, exposing people’s voice instead of the elite, exposing the suffering of refugee, investigating the backgrounds of conflict, covering both sides, and giving space to small efforts to reconciliation by citizens. It is clear by observation that Indonesian media in general –especially in Sampit (Central Kalimantan – Dayak vs Madura)’s case- practiced Peace Journalism standard and tended to support any effort towards peace and reconciliation. People could hardly see sadistic/violent pictures of headless bodies in mass media (except Internet and foreign media). Rather, pictures of dozens of trucks in line or ships with thousands of suffering refugee dominated the media.

Jawa Pos and Surya, published in Surabaya but had quite big circulation in the conflicting area, reported the background of the conflict, stories of people helped each other, and “good will quotations” from the conflicting groups. Kompas, the biggest newspapers, also published comprehensive stories of the conflicts completed with articles/opinions from three points of view; the Dayak, the Madurese, and one neutral anthropologist. National and regional or local papers were in competition to cover “what people do about it”, donation being collected and distributed, government, voluntary workers, and activists giving attention to any aspect of life (environment, social, religious, health, education) undergone by the refugee.

After the era of Peace Journalism, mass media tend to be less provocative when covering racial and religious conflicts. In 9 biggest newspapers, published in March to August 2000, only 177 out of 588 reports (of conflicts) were put as headlines (showing of no blowing up nor exaggeration); and 459 out of 558 reports covered both sides. Less than 50% (250 reports) were opinionated. The most covered conflicting area during that period was Aceh, followed by South Mollucas (it was before Sampit / Central kalimantan conflict erupted). Irian Jaya (West Papua) cry for separation/independence do not get much attention by the national media, but it dominates the headlines of local media.

When visiting Irian Jaya recently (to establish a media watch organization there and to plan for Papua Press Awards to be presented in June this year), I noted that there are 5 daily newspapers and 4 weekly tabloids, which are circulated consistently (several others are in on-and-off condition). Journalists said that their sources are mainly pro separation/independence figures. “Because the pro integration people and the government always gave us ‘no comments’ or ‘off the records’ information,” they explained. They did not explain why they did not interview citizens instead of political figures.

We can not be too proud to acknowledge this spirit of peace to the movement of Peace Journalism action, but what I mean to say here is, even though very little, the movement has impacts on how the media determines its role. And in covering racial and religious conflicts, the media determines to take a peaceful role.

However, different from the way they cover racial and religious conflicts, Indonesian media seems to let loose in covering political frictions. The issue of whether President Wahied should remain in his presidency or should step down becomes a circus of “free press”. Nothing else is more interesting to the media. It is displayed on the front page with “very loud headlines”, regardless its significance to public.

Caption (text photo):

Moslems in Java with their swords showing their readiness and eagerness to go jihad to Mollucas is one example of what media consumers said as “provocative”. This is taken from Surya daily, but this kind of pictures were displayed in many other Indonesian newspapers.

Sirikit Syah, her activities include educating people to understand the freedom of the press and take a positive advantage out of it, instead of take it as an enemy; and educating young journalists to improve their quality and professionalism.


Perihal LKM Media Watch
Mass media are watchdogs. But who watch the media? Let's do it together. Watch this very powerful entity, for better journalism, better Indonesia, better world.

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