Saturday, November 15, 2008

INDONESIA: Media Turns Bali Bombers Into Martyrs

In a crowded neighbourhood in this sprawling city families sat glued to their television sets late into the night of Nov. 8 watching updates on the execution of three men convicted for the 2002 nightclub bombings on the resort island of Bali, killing 202 people.

Among those drawn to this weekend media spectacle was Saida, who runs a furniture business in Jakarta. '’Many, many people watched TV that Saturday night to understand what was going on,’’ said the 35-year-old single mother, who, like many Indonesians, has no second name. ‘’There were five people in our house. We went to sleep at two.’’

But that was not the only night that she and her neighbours followed a routine that ended early Sunday morning with the execution by firing squad of the three men in the Nusakambangan island prison. ‘’We kept watching the TV for a week, day and night, following the programmes about these men.’’ Saida added.

Such intense coverage, led by both the broadcast and print media, has generated a bout of soul-searching in the days after the execution. Sections of the media, too, are expressing regret at the manner in which the stories about the Bali bombers -- Imam Samudra, 38, and the brothers Amrozi Nurhaqim, 47, and Ali Ghufron, 48 -- transformed them into heroes.

‘’Almost every day for the past month Amrozi and friends received extensive media coverage normally reserved for celebrities facing marital problems or sex scandals,’’ commented ‘The Jakarta Post’ in a Monday editorial titled ‘Good riddance’. ‘’They have become instant celebrities in their own right. Only in Indonesia can a convicted terrorist become a media darling.’’

Media ‘excesses’ included interviews and press conferences given by the death-row trio in a ‘high security’ prison, stories about their families and details about one of the Muslim militants getting married even as he awaited the bullets. It was an avenue that gave the condemned men the licence to project themselves as martyrs.

‘’Originally we had a na├»ve view that if we gave them the space to speak, they will use the occasion to express remorse,’’ Endy Bayuni, chief editor of the ‘Post’, said in an interview. ‘’But they used the media access to turn this opening into a political circus. They openly justified their brutal acts.’’

The coverage has also provoked some analysts to raise the issue of ethics in a country that has one of the freest and most independent media in South-east Asia. ‘’Many of us think it was unethical for the media, especially TV, to glorify these men,’’ says Dewi Fortuna Anwar, director for programmes and research at the Habibie Centre, a respected Indonesian think tank. ‘’They were able to get their militant messages out on prime time.’’

‘’The impact can already be felt among sections of the public, who are starting to say that the three men are martyrs,’’ she revealed in an interview. ‘’We are proud of our free media, but the media have a role to play in building ethics. It is not the government’s role to control the media.’’

But the television stations that fed the national audience with accounts of the Bali bombers say they were driven by the news value of an event that had also taken on qualities of drama as the public were kept is suspense about the exact date of the execution. The executions were postponed many times, often without a clear explanation by the authorities.

‘’After the Barack Obama story in the U.S., this was the biggest. There was no way we could avoid such news; we could not turn away from it,’’ says Rullah Malik, executive producer of Metro TV, a national broadcaster, which had three reporting teams on the ground covering the story. ‘’We had several programmes covering the three men.’’

‘’Our policy was to tell it straight, to show that these men are criminals but that they also have families and neighbourhoods,’’ he told IPS. ‘’We also wanted to show that their acts are not justified in Islam. It is not jihad as Islam describes it.’’

The Bali bombers are the first to be executed under Indonesia’s tough 2003 anti-terrorism law. It followed a five-year court case, where the men admitted to planning and assisting in the acts of terror unleashed at nightspots, popular with foreign tourists, on Oct. 12, 2002.

This operation is reported to have been funded by the Jemaah Islamiya, a network of militant Muslims operating in a country that has the largest followers of Islam, a majority of whom adhere to a moderate and tolerant form of the faith. This Indonesian version of Islam was on display in the wake of the media coverage for the bombers, with leading religious leaders making pronouncements that the condemned trio were anything but martyrs.

On the island of Bali, which has a rich Hindu tradition, the executions of the three men -- who had caused so much pain and suffering with their violent acts -- were received with an air of calmness. ‘’The Balinese believe in karma. They did not display any strong reaction,’’ says Hira Jhamtani, a resident of the island and an environmental researcher. ‘’There was a sense of relief, though.’’

‘’In fact there was a group that conducted a multi-faith prayer for the victims of Bali as well as for the souls of the Bali bombers,’’ she told IPS. ‘’To them it was a tragic episode that is now over.’’
Source : IPSnews,
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

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