The Biggest Media Dilemmas: Lapindo Mud and Avian Influenza

By Sirikit Syah
Media Observer
Lecturer at Surabaya School of Communication

In the first days and first weeks of Lapindo mud in Sidoarjo-East Java, from June to September 2006, everybody blamed PT Lapindo. Even the police insisted on interrogating the engineers and confiscating the machinery. Every authority and pressure group in East Java concerned on “who’s to blame”, not “how to save the victims”. Rescue actions, therefore, were late, and traffic management (alternative route) was not planned right away.

In every newsroom -I was chief editor at that time- it was politically incorrect if one said a possibility of “mud volcano” or “natural disaster”. My instinct that it might and could grow into natural disaster, supported by academic and scientific opinions from vulcanologists and geologists from relevant mailing lists (the internet), was ignored. It was even enough to raise rumor of “bribery” by PT Lapindo to people in newsrooms. There was an uneasy feeling, awkwardness, among journalists and editors just to discuss the matter objectively. The only political correct attitude was to blame PT Lapindo. If one happens to think or find some other possibilities and dares to say it, he/she must be ready for bank account check: whether there is a significant rise on it.

The biggest challenge for the media was that we could not even talk about it objectively and in balance. Several senior media practitioners, in informal meetings, agreed with me. Some senior editors admitted how difficult the situation was for them. The most popular radio station in Surabaya was suspected of being paid handsomely by PT Lapindo, because it conducted a daily interactive dialog on the matter, which included sources from PT Lapindo. The morning talk show was full of questions and condemnations from the public to PT Lapino, and it was only fulfilling the standard of journalism that the radio invited PT Lapindo to answer and explain.

Other editor complained of false accusation after his newspaper published PT Lapindo’s advertisement (saying that it admits its wrong-doing, it will be responsible for the damage, and the progress of its efforts in overcoming the problem). Information as basic as that, and as important as that, was suspected of being “conspiracy of the media and Lapindo to lie to public”. So, PT Lapindo was denied the right to explain in the news area, and now it was also attacked for putting its voice via advertisement. What is PT Lapindo supposed to do to communicate with the public, then?

If one observes how the media cover the Lapindo mud, there was no single expert who said the analysis as they discussed and expressed in the internet. And why is that? They were also in a phobia –as their fellow media practitioners- afraid of being accused of being bribed. Or, perhaps, some of them must be brave to say their academic and scientific analysis, but they were not politically-correct sources for the media to interview.

Because the media, the authority, and pressure groups, had chosen the wrong priority, the solution of the Lapindo mud was late and ineffective. I support the investigation of the engineers, the process of the case in legal manner, and the punishment to PT Lapindo if found guilty. But above all, the government –provincial and national- should first consider the importance of the public’s life. The city and provincial governments (Sidoarjo and East Java) said they couldn’t do anything for alternating route/traffic, because for building toll road, it’s the authority of national government (very important notes: that’s why Jakarta alone has a lot more toll roads than East Java, and why toll road from Surabaya never reaches Malang).

The economy of East Java is in big problems: if not closed-down, factories in the area of Pasuruan-Porong-Sidoarjo are moving to the northern area (Lamongan, Gresik), real estates are going down, people are loosing jobs. A reader’s letter questions the provincial government about the future plan. He needs to know whether he should move his family from Malang to Surabaya (if things do not get better), he is tired of spending half-day in traffic and being late to office since July. And, quite predictable, the government cannot answer and the public’s need to know for information vital for their future is denied.

To make it worse, the existence of Aburizal Bakrie as the owner of PT Lapindo and as Minister of Public Welfare makes it difficult for him to do his job as public servant. It would be considered as politically incorrect if he authorized state donation for the mud victims, by stating that it was a national disaster so the state must take responsibility for the security and welfare of the people. So, because of his awkward positions, the victims take the consequence. Sri Mulyani, Minister of Finance, stated at one time, that “because the mud is not natural disaster but technical error of a company, the state will not pay any rupiah for the victims”.

In 2006, the Lapindo mud was the most challenging news case for the media, putting us in dilemma of doing the right or the politically-correct thing. There is a hope that the central government fulfills its responsibility of the security and welfare of its people. The fact is, the people are now trapped in a sea of mud and robbed of their rights for economic, social, and culture. The central government must take action with priority for the people, and take care of PT Lapindo’s wrong-doing, which caused all the trouble, afterwards.

Avian Influenza

Entering 2007, the Lapindo mud is slowly taken aside by the panic of avian influenza. Many people accuse the media of creating panic among people, but it was not the media, who create panic, but the sources, those from the government authority. First, the authority campaigns for the burning/extinction of birds. They describe the danger of the avian influenza, by exposing numbers of deaths and the fast-spreading of it. But, when people are reluctantly destroying their own belongings, killing the birds with tears in their eyes; the same authority campaigns that “eating chicken are safe”. They even eat the chicken on TV camera and their pictures become headlines.

That “birds are dangerous” and “eating chicken are safe” are two things that opposite one another. One must be wrong. Either the extinction was wrong, or to eat them was. When the government says both are right, without further explanation, the people were confused. In this avian influenza case, it seems that the authority is not sure to do. Not only that there are different statements from two departments (Health & Agriculture) that are opposing each other, but the department of Communication and Information says nothing at all about this. There is no formal guidance for the public; both the birds raisers and the consumers. Media, on the other hand, are just reporting facts. The fact is: the government creates panic, not the media.

But perhaps, that is the mistake. The media should not only report facts, since facts do not always reflect reality. We are waiting for the media to not only voice the authority, but also to investigate what really happens.

This article is to remind the media of its function, in celebrating the Indonesian Press Day, February 9. The Jakarta Post


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