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.

Much of the Indonesian media is owned by conglomerates, some of whose owners are involved in national politics. Two of the key players are MNC owner Hary Tanoesoedibjo and Metro TV owner Surya Paloh. The polarization and manipulation of the press was on clear display during Indonesia’s 2014 presidential election, with the press not only exhibiting biased reporting but also producing starkly differing quick-count results.

In addition to the political polarization of the press, religion and faith also come into the equation. In 2016, Indonesia saw a series of rallies against the governor of Jakarta at the time, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. Hard-line Islamic groups demanded Ahok be imprisoned or summarily executed for blasphemy against Islam. Due to its scale, a violent rally in November 2016 dominated the news, with every major news channel covering it.

During an even larger anti-Ahok rally in December 2016, some protesters lashed out at Metro TV and Kompas TV. Metro TV reporters were harassed while working and protesters threw rocks at their company cars. Protesters claimed the stations were painting Muslims in a bad light.

The violence, though limited and quickly contained by police, exposed the state of the media in Indonesia. Many conservatives, particularly those active on Facebook, refused to follow mainstream media because of their allegedly biased reporting on Ahok’s blasphemy case. The pinnacle was a debate over how many protesters were actually at the December 2016 rally: ranging from a few hundred thousand (mostly accurate) to several million (laughable). Any news report citing smaller numbers than those claimed by Islamic conservatives was quickly labeled as biased and not to be trusted. The only exception was the pro-opposition TVOne.

The lack of trust in Indonesia’s mainstream media left a void that was quickly filled by a new and mainly online media. It is relatively easy to set up a website in Indonesia, including by those who claim to produce news. The government closed down several websites that produced provocative news content before the December 2016 anti-Ahok rally, yet new ones quickly popped up in their place.

The problem is that Indonesians believe in “new media,” which is often questionable in its reporting but fits people’s personal beliefs. This new media has made millions of dollars producing fake news and feeding hatred, some pocketing even bigger profits than the established media, according to a report by Tirto, an online media site.

Last August, the Indonesian police broke up a syndicate called Saracen, revealing a network of people who wrote fake news to incite hatred and spark online debate. This fake news mostly followed the theme of a grand conspiracy against Islam in Indonesia and the looming threat of Chinese investment or foreign workers in the country. From his 2014 campaign until now, President Joko Widodo has often been accused of being pro-China and a communist.

A polarized press is not unique to Indonesia. As more media are owned by conglomerates, reports are influenced by an owner’s commercial or political agenda. However, in Indonesia, religion is tapped as a powerful tool for mass mobilization, an efficient one at that.

In Indonesia, press freedom should mean that the press is free to report what it wants. Freedom of religion means people are free to worship according to their beliefs. Yet today, where fact and faith are intertwined, people choose facts according to their own beliefs. It is not “you are what you read,” since many Indonesians are not really keen on reading anyway. For many educated yet illiterate Indonesians, it’s “you read what suits who you are.”

An often-cited study finds that Indonesia is the second-least literate among 61 countries surveyed. Almost all Indonesians can read and the population receives at least nine years of education, but schools do not teach critical thinking. As Indonesians get more of their so-called news via social media – the country is big on Facebook and Twitter – it’s very easy to provoke hatred and spread fake news.

Growing religious intolerance makes people overlook the crucial difference between what is fake and what is fact. Facts, according to many, don’t depend on how the information stands up when examined using journalistic standards. They depend on who writes and publishes the information, and who reads it. When facts do not suit one’s beliefs, then they must not be the truth. The question, “Miss, are you a Muslim?” did not come from curiosity, but caution. Faith and identity decide the credibility of the news, regardless of the facts.


Devina Heriyanto is a Jakarta-based journalist.

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