By Endy M. Bayuni
October 05 2015
Indonesia’s 70th anniversary this year is a celebration not only of our independence, but also of our diversity. How more than 250 million people, made up of different races, ethnicities, cultures, traditions, languages and faiths, have survived as one nation for seven decades is a question historians will have to answer.
We know it hasn’t been easy, with trials and tribulations.
Also this year, Kompas, Indonesia’s largest national daily newspaper, celebrated its 50th anniversary. The paper was launched in 1965 by a Catholic foundation. Nothing in the paper’s appearance suggests that it caters to a specific religious community.
Kompas reaches out to the wider public, and not just the tiny Roman Catholic community in Indonesia. Its founders made a conscious decision to produce a newspaper that transcends the religious divide in Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population.
It simply practices good journalism.
And one that also leads to good business. Today, Kompas is a large business conglomeration with diverse interests, including book publishing, property and hotels (Disclosure: The writer works for The Jakarta Post, in which Kompas has a minority interest).
Given Kompas’ role as the most widely read newspaper, at least these last three decades, most of the Indonesian elite would have read the same reference material in looking at problems and challenges. Irrespective of our background, including religion, we have been “reading from the same page”.
There are newspapers that cater to specific religious communities, Muslims and Christians, but they are not as widely read. Indonesia’s news industry is dominated by publications that cater to the general audience rather than specific religious groups. Ditto with private broadcasters, television and radio stations.
We should not understate the role of the media in bridging Indonesia’s racial, ethnical and religious divisions. There are countries in Asia that are racially and ethnically divided, where each community reads from its own newspaper. Such media outlets would not only represent the interests of the community, but often they would sharpen differences and perpetuate tensions and conflicts.
The potential for tensions and conflicts between religious communities always exists in Indonesia. In Ambon, Maluku, this potential erupted into a two-year bloody communal war in 1999-2001.
The media should hold the government accountable for ensuring religious freedom.
Media organizations have the power to divide or unite societies.
Our news industry has shown that good journalism in the name of public services can help promote peaceful coexistence and greater tolerance between religious communities.
This may go against the industry’s popular adage that “bad news is good news, and that good news is no news”, but those managing the news industry know that if society is in conflict, the media will lose and suffer just as much, because it is part of society. It has a stake in society’s well-being and must take responsibility in helping to promote peace and harmony.
Media reporting about religion and about Indonesia’s religious communities is by no means perfect.
It can improve much more in promoting peace, especially amid rising religious tension, harassment and persecution, and rising religious intolerance.
The rise of the Internet and social media in disseminating news and information has made the task more complex. With the fierce competition to be the first, online media often sacrifices accuracy.
The media fell short of its standards in reporting the Tolikara tragedy in July, when Christians and Muslims clashed in a remote town in Papua. Journalists had difficulties in getting access to the story (a five-hour ride by car from the nearest biggest town), so they relied on information fed by sources on the ground that were part of the conflict and were reporting only partially, not wholly.
Our media is still divided about how to handle religious conflicts, mindful that on how they report them would affect public opinion and could inflame tensions. Some newspapers avoid reporting them completely; others bury the stories inside; and some others blur the religious identities. But some would go to the other extreme, and report the stories in full; some would intentionally use inflaming terms.
The media is obliged to report all these tensions and conflicts. It should not withhold any information, but should exercise care and wisdom in reporting them and not fuel the tensions.
Under Soeharto, the media had specific instructions not to report stories of religious tensions and conflicts. Forced closures of places of worship and harassment against religious minorities went unreported; perpetrators went unpunished and the government was never held publicly accountable.
Today it is left to the discretion of editors to decide whether to report religious tensions and conflicts, and how they want to cover them.
The responsibility for ensuring peaceful coexistence between religious communities falls first and foremost on the government — to guarantee freedom of religion and protect religious communities — and on religious leaders, who should be promoting tolerance and reaching out to others.
Since the media’s main role is to influence public opinion, it is the “cheerleader” in interfaith relations and dialogue. The media can sway public opinion toward peace or conflict or war.
In what other ways can the media promote peaceful coexistence between religious communities?
As the fourth pillar of democracy, the media should hold the government accountable for ensuring religious freedom and for protecting the rights of religious communities, including their right to build places of worship and to practice their faith.
Media outlets can at least help reduce prevailing ignorance between religious communities, by reporting more about the lives and the beliefs of the different communities they serve. Ignorance, the chief source of mutual suspicion and intolerance, allows extremist elements in all religions to exploit the fear.
Media outlets need to build their own tradition of reporting better about the faiths and the religious communities in their respective societies, avoid malicious stereotyping and perpetuating prejudices that one group has about the other.
The media needs to give more space to the voices of moderation that speak of peace and less to the fear-mongering radical and extremist groups.
In societies where people build their lives around observation of religious rituals, as in Indonesia, the media must do a better job in reflecting this reality — and not only report about religion when there are tensions or conflicts.
The media would do a much better job in covering society if newsroom staff reflected as much as possible the ethnical, racial and religious diversity.
Finally, by practicing good journalism, the media would help to build better understanding between religious communities. It can encourage religious communities to collaborate and work together in addressing common challenges.
The writer is a senior editor of The Jakarta Post. He is also a founding member of the International Association of Religions Journalists (IARJ). This article was written after his presentation at the Indonesia-Netherlands Interfaith Dialogue in The Hague on Sept. 25