When facts and faith are intertwined
January-March 2018
By: Devina Heriyanto

I was recently reporting on a protest against a new Batak church just across the street from my house in Jakarta, when I was asked about my religion. The protest was led by men in white attire, old and young, some wearing peci (traditional Muslim hats), all of whom claimed to be from the mosque in the neighborhood.

They said the new church had not obtained the required permits. In Indonesia, you need an official permit to build a house of worship. When questioned, the protest leader claimed that they were not trying to limit Indonesia’s legally protected freedom of religion; they were only against illegally constructed houses of worship. The church did not have an official permit, but had gathered signatures from local residents to conduct religious activities.

I thought I had done my job by covering both sides of the story: the churchgoers and the protesters. I was about to leave the scene when someone told me not to be biased in my reporting. What really shook me was a question from the protest leader: “Miss, are you a Muslim?” I am not, yet I nodded yes out of fear. I am a female Buddhist of Chinese-descent, an identity that makes me a three-time minority in Indonesia and puts me at risk. This personal anecdote is a summary of the state of press freedom in my country.

The need to know about the religion of the people reporting the news underlines that Indonesia’s media today is highly polarized, not only by political affiliation but also by religion. The latest press freedom index from Reporters Without Borders classified Indonesia as “partly free,” with a score of 49 out of 100. The index cites the country’s controversial information technology and blasphemy laws, restrictions on press access to the conflict-prone Papua region and the domination of the press by media conglomerates.

Indonesian media has been largely free since the resignation in 1998 of the late President Soeharto, whose authoritarian government monitored and punished the press if it stepped out of line. However, this freedom is not without a cost. Although Indonesia’s press is now independent from the government, it is still largely influenced by its owners. Some of the press goes as far as bending the facts to suit the political and business interests of their owners.

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