Category Archives: Media

Brazilian atheists have a message for Indonesia

"If god exists, everything is permitted"

This powerful advertisement commissioned by a Brazilian atheist group sums up, in one slogan, what is happening with religious bigotry, persecution and violence against the Ahmadiyah community in Indonesia at the moment.

Last month a court gave sentences of 3-6 months’ jail to 12 Sunni Muslim thugs who led a lynch mob of around 1,500 armed extremists against about 20 members of the Ahmadiyah sect, who are Muslims in every sense of the word except they don’t believe Mohammed was the final prophet. In the eyes of the Indonesian courts, this means you can kill them in front of police and receive less punishment than you would for stealing someone’s buffalo or making a naughty video of yourself with your girlfriend.

Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa put his Cambridge masters degree in philosophy to good use on Friday, cynically inverting logic and ethics in justification of the sentences. He said the judiciary’s independence could not be questioned (ignoring that laws such as prohibitions against murder are created by parliament to be enforced) and noted that Indonesia was not the only country to experience “heinous” acts as a result of religious intolerance (ignoring the fact that heinous acts which go unpunished are likely to be repeated).

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Indonesia’s smoking clinic featured on Al-Jazeera

I’ve written quite a bit about a bunch of Indonesians who claim they can treat cancer and all sorts of other ailments with magic cigarettes. It’s bizarre stuff. The Sydney Morning Herald and AFP news agency have picked up on the story. Now Al-Jazeera and the Global Post are joining in. The images tell 1000 words, but still the government has done nothing to intervene:

Tobacco ad of the day: miracle electro-smokes!

On world No Tobacco Day, your featured cigarette ad from times past and, in Indonesia, present:

I’m not sure if you can read the newspaper “article”. It says:

Scientific miracles never cease!… Now see what modern electronics has done to increase your cigarette enjoyment! With electronic accuracy, Accu Ray checks and controls the making of your Chesterfield. For the first time you get a perfect [even smoke] from end-to-end. You’ll marvel at the extra flavour that comes through. Yet because this measurably better cigarette smokes more slowly – you enjoy a cool mildness never possible before. From first puff to last, Chesterfield gives you a smoke measurably smoother… cooler… best for you! In the whole wide world, no cigarette satisfies like a Chesterfield!

Looks like they also boost eyebrow growth (obviously tastes have changes in that department over the years … ).

Those of us from developed countries might laugh and recognise this as the old game Big Tobacco played on us for years – dressing up toxic cigarettes in pseudo-science and technology and selling them as healthy, life-enhancing products.

In developing countries like Indonesia – the new front line for international efforts to reduce death and disease from smoking – it’s not funny. Cigarette advertising is ubiquitous and The Jakarta Post, the country’s oldest English-language broadsheet newspaper, has repeatedly published uncritical articles in its editorial pages about how local scientists are using advances in nantotechnology to make “divine cigarettes” that are not only healthy, they can treat cancer. Even Chesterfield didn’t go that far.

(For more old tobacco ads, see Stanford School of Medicine’s great gallery)

No Tobacco Day in Indonesia? Try a ‘health cigarette’

As the world marks No Tobacco Day, Indonesia is again in the spotlight and The Jakarta Post has again covered itself in infamy. On the eve of today’s event, the English-language daily published another installment in its bizarre campaign to promote “healthy cigarettes”. Using pseudo-scientific language, the author of an “opinion” piece claims that cancer patients are being successfully treated with scientifically altered cigarettes that vacuum up all harmful “free radicals” linked mercury.

If it wasn’t so sad it would be funny:

… apparently, a biochemist from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) has found a way to do just that — neutralise tobacco through a nanobiological process. i.e. a process characterised by the interplay between physics, materials science, synthetic organic chemistry, engineering and biology. The researcher has successfully treated a number of terminal lung cancer patients through a detoxification method that includes smoking the “healthy cigarettes” of her invention.

The unnamed scientist sounds suspiciously like Dr. Greta Zahar, of “Divine Cigarettes” fame. But Alita Damar, the writer of the opinion piece, seems to follow the template set by Australian contributor Murray Clapham last year and doesn’t name the mastermind behind this historic medical breakthrough. Best to keep all those desperate cancer sufferers guessing! She continues:

Indeed, the nanostructure molecular blocks of these health cigarettes remove the electrons of the free radical gases contained in tobacco smoke, in particular those promoted by mercury, thereby neutralising the ill-effects of smoking. Unlike regular cigarettes, this cigarette smoke is “odorless”.

So all the harmful effects of smoking, from impotence to stroke and heart disease and emphysema, not to mention cancer, are nullified by this new treatment. And what of the doubters? They’re dismissed out of hand:

Naturally, the controversial method has raised controversy [spellbinding wordplay here] in the wake of the anti-tobacco campaign here and around the world. Speculation has also been rife that she might work for the tobacco industry. It’s not true, of course. Years ago most patients would only survive in the next few months due to their poor prognostics, but many of whom are still alive.

And what, dare we ask, is the evidence that smoking such cigarettes cures or halts the spread of cancer? None. Unless you factor in the power of the placebo. In the absence of any evidence, we must conclude that the free radical, nano-engineering blah blah being touted here is just another form of “alternative medicine” which desperately ill people will try as a last resort. And as The Economist noted last week, there is very little evidence that alternative medicines work beyond the placebo effect, which may be considerable.

Damar claims that the mysterious researchers are part of the “complexity science” movement, and she notes that they have “presented” their findings at international meetings:

As controversial as it may seem, the detoxification process is based on meta-engineering, for example, the development of new knowledge…

This science, which includes the less popular quantum physics, deals with cells and interaction between cells. It thereby enables a better understanding on how the whole body system functions, thus leading to the achievement of “holistic health”. Hence, we are speaking of a science that potentially brings about breakthroughs in medical science which is generally based on reductionism, or a science that may well “revolutionise” medicine.

The detoxification method has been presented in a number of international forums attended by scientists working on Theoretical Physics and Nano or Computer Science, such as the recent ICEME (International Conference on Engineering and Meta-Engineering) in Florida, the US.

I looked up the proceedings of this conference (which one anonymous blogger described as “junk” ) and found the paper to which Damar appears to be referring. It’s by Sutiman B. Sumitro, identified as representing the Department of Biology and “Laboratory of Molecular Biology” at Brawijaya University in West Java.

The paper is titled “Study on Biradical Based Complex Structure: A PossibleWay to Find out Natural Nanoparticles from the Human Body”. A paper with the same name by Sutiman Sumitro  also appears on the fascinating website of something called the Indonesia Nanobiology Institute.  Take the time to read the 4-page paper and decide for yourself if it’s credible. I’m not a scientist so I can only guess.

Sumitro is a long-standing associate of Zahar, that “strange granny” I’ve mentioned before. They seem to be the driving forces of the “nanobiology institute” and co-author articles posted there. Check out the paper titled “Overcoming Cigarette for Health without altering the Flavor (Brief illustration of scientific background and evidences)”. Fascinating. It says Zahar is from the “Free Radicals Institute” of Malang. So many institutes I just can’t keep up. Here’s the abstract, or as the authors put it, the “Basic Concept and Philosophy”:

This is about technology to eliminate free-radicals and to transform particulates contained in the smoke having characteristic to develop order. The idea is based on the assumption that in the biological system, life is an ordered system with internal driven activities. We consider a complexity concepts cover self-organization and edge-of-chaos phenomena in the living systems. As may we know that in the basic process of life (called metabolism), there is ceaseless flow of energy and matter through a network of chemical reactions, which enables a living organism to continually generate, repair and perpetuate itself. Thermodynamically, the ordered structure of the living system is maintained by continually exert entropy to the outside of the system.

Pretty clear, yeah? They even include a diagram to illustrate “complexity in living system”:

So, we can rest assured the Nobel committee is on its way to Bandung or Malang (or wherever) to bestow its honours on Dr. Zahar (who has previously stated she has no interest in having her work reviewed by “Western” scientists), her colleague  Sutiman Sumitro and their groundbreaking team. When are all those silly Western evidence-freaks going to come to their senses?

Sadly, The Jakarta Post isn’t the only outlet for those willing to peddle this stuff. Take a look at this blog for more.

For a dose of reality, check out this story in the Jakarta Globe on Tuesday, with the depressing stats on smoking in Indonesia.

Or check the National Cancer Institute’s website and read what it has to say about free radicals (such as oxygen) and antioxidants (such as vitamin C). It says that while serious research is ongoing, recent “large-scale, randomised clinical trials reached inconsistent conclusions” about whether antioxidants slow or prevent the development of cancer. As for actually reversing that damage, there seems to be no evidence at all.

There is also serious research being done into the use of nanoparticles to fight cancer. Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, have sent gold nanoparticles into the nuclei of cancer cells and killed them (NB: sent particles into cancer cells, not used particles to hoover up free radicals). Their research has been cited as a communication in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

I’d love to know who is behind these opinion pieces and features in The Jakarta Post, coming as they do on the eve of No Tobacco Day and as the government tries to improve its appalling record on smoking regulations. It wouldn’t have anything to do with the tobacco industry’s advertising dollars, would it?

Crass ad of the day: pizza for refugees!

We probably shouldn’t blame Pizza Hut for this, but check out the unfortunate placement of their advertisement in this Gulf newspaper below.

The story is about refugees pouring out of Libya and begging for food at the Egyptian border. The excellent news photo shows refugees reaching for scraps of bread through the razor wire. It’s an effective front page … except for the scowl-inducing contribution from the advertising department.  A special offer of four extra thick pan pizzas placed in such a way that the refugee almost looks like he’s reaching for a slice. Oh dear. Guess it’s a case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing in this particular newsroom.

Old guard vs new in Indonesia’s Wikileaks washup

The Wikileaks cables revealing the United States is privy to serious allegations of abuse of power and potential corruption by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have, as expected, stirred up a storm of reactions, counter-allegations, conspiracy theories and recriminations.

As the feathers continue to fly, the roosters seem to fall into two breeds: those who claim the allegations are nothing important and seek to malign the messenger (in this case Wikileaks and the Australian papers which published the leaked cables); and those who say the allegations need to be investigated.

Just to recap, according to The Sydney Morning Helald (part of the Fairfax media group which gained exclusive access to the cables from Wikileaks), the allegations are that Yudhoyono “blocked a corruption investigation into a political powerbroker, Taufik Kiemas, used the intelligence services to spy on rivals and received funding from the controversial businessman Tomy Winata via a middleman”.

They also claim that first lady Kristiani Herawati sought to “profit personally by acting as a broker or facilitator for business ventures”. Yudhoyno’s former vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, a rich businessman and powerbroker, is also accused of buying influence with thick wads of cash. The allegations come from Indonesian political sources, including one who is close to Yudhoyono.

The government has issued a blanket denial and dragged the US ambassador, Scot Marciel, before the media to apologise. He dutifully did so, in what can only be described as a public humiliation. In doing so he threw out any claims he has to care about corruption in Indonesia and the freedom of the press.

That’s all entirely – if sadly – predictable. President SBY, after all, has a notoriously thin hide and an equally feeble grasp of the benefit of press freedom and free speech.

But some of the other sources of indignation and denial have been less predictable, though possibly not surprising.

Veteran Jakarta-based correspondent John McBeth, writing in The Straits Times, says the cables “only report  rumours” about the “untainted” president, and offer “little in the way of evidence”. McBeth is close to many a “senior government official”, and quotes one saying that what looks like corruption from the outside isn’t corruption at all to an Indonesian. It’s all about the “culture,” you see.

“In our culture there is often a wide grey area and sometimes decisions are based on political realities,” the official explains.

McBeth then attacks the messengers, both Wikileaks in the form of Julian Assange, and Fairfax papers The Age and The SMH which he says “never cut Jakarta much slack”. He puts this down to a kind of vendetta stemming from resentment over the killing of five Australian-based journalists by Indonesian troops in the former East Timor in 1975. His evidence to back this conspiracy theory is sparse to say the least. (Indonesia denies this crime as well, of course.)

Joining him in the same conspiratorial camp is a gentleman by the name of Habiburokhman, a lawyer, who told The Jakarta Post that the allegations are pay-back by Australia for Indonesia’s plans to limit live beef imports from the country.

His clients are in the shoot-the-messenger camp. Officials from Indonesia’s Federation of National Enterprise United Workers Union have filed a suit in a Jakarta court claiming $1 billion in damages from the newspapers for allegedly “ruining the pride of a nation.” Given the gangster-style legal system in Indonesia, they might actually win.

The Jakarta Globe, which campaigns against corrupt junior officials with an invigorating zeal, seems to have lost its enthusiasm for the vice and virtue angle of the Wikileaks allegations against Yudhoyono. An editorial published in the aftermath of the explosive cables read more like a PR firm’s advice to the president on how to limit the damage than an indignant newspaper’s demand for transparency and justice.

So, there are plenty of people in the shoot-the-messenger and conspiracy-theory camps, but who is in the indignant anti-corruption camp? I can’t find too many.

The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) – the country’s main corruption-fighting organ – has quickly hosed down any suggestion it is going to touch the allegations. It response seems to be – not with a 10-foot pole!

So we turn again to the little guys, the anti-corruption activists, to take up the banner.  Independent watchdog Petisi 28 has lodged a request for a formal investigation into the allegations. “It is time for the president to clarify the reports by submitting himself to the legal process. If the president is not guilty, he should be brave enough to allow the KPK to investigate him,” said the group’s leader.

And there’s the Fairfax papers themselves. They’re sticking to their guns, apparently unswayed by McBeth’s scorn and threats of billion-dollar lawsuits.  Here’s how The Age responded to its critics in an editorial today:

It is important to note that this is not a case of a single document containing accusations from a rogue source; rather, our reporting is based on numerous cables over several years that detail information gathered by senior US diplomats from a range of well-placed contacts.

The Age does not presume to stand in judgment of Dr Yudhoyono on the matters raised in the previously secret cables, but nor do we apologise for exposing them and him to the harsh light of public scrutiny. Whatever else the cables show, they suggest that the so-called new Indonesia – free of the corrupt culture that poisoned the country’s political, military and judicial institutions through and beyond the Suharto era – remains elusive.

I know which argument makes more sense to me. How about you?

(Photo courtesy of Corvair via flickr)

US credibility takes a nosedive in Indonesia

US ambassador to Indonesia, Scot Marciel (pictured left shaking hands with the Indonesian president), needs to get out a bit more and listen to ordinary Indonesians. If he did he would know that his performance at a press conference on Friday was an insult to those who aspire to live in a democracy that respects the rule of law.

As reported in the Australian media, the ambassador apparently walked out of the press conference which was called to respond to leaked US diplomatic cables making explosive allegations of abuse of power against President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other political leaders.

The conference was not called, it seems, to answer journalists’ legitimate questions, but merely to give a show of openness to what amounts to naked propaganda. That propaganda seems intended to give the impression, ridiculous as it is to anyone who follows Indonesian affairs, that there are no serious issues about corruption or abuse of power in the world’s “third biggest democracy”.

Here’s how the The Age’s Tom Allard described proceedings:

At an extraordinary and, at times, awkward press conference after the meeting, Mr Marciel declined to confirm or deny the veracity of the cables or comment on the specific allegations they contained.

But he said, generally speaking, such cables contained “candid and often raw information” that was “often incomplete and unsubstantiated”.

“We express our deepest regrets to President Yudhoyono and to the Indonesian people,” he said, adding that the publication of the cables was “extremely irresponsible”.

Mr Marciel abruptly left the press conference shortly afterwards, leaving Mr Natalegawa to answer questions alone.

Natalegawa reportedly dismissed the apparently naive suggestion that the allegations might be investigated, saying categorically they would not.

Showing how much he respected the Indonesian people, Marciel dutifully repeated the “attack-the-messenger” approach of the State Department that it is “irresponsible” to report allegations of serious abuses of power about a US ally.

The ambassador commented only in order to discredit his own embassy’s cables and to attack those who chose to inform the Indonesian people about the allegations contained therein. It reminds me of his predecessor, Cameron Hume, who reportedly told journalists in his final days in Jakarta that human rights issues in Papua were of absolutely no concern to the United States as it mulled re-opening military ties with the Kopassus special forces blamed for committing atrocities in the region.

President Barack Obama pretends he has some affinity with ordinary Indonesians. After all, he knows the words “satay” and “nasi goreng”. He also claims to support their aspirations for genuine democracy and justice. But apparently Obama doesn’t think they deserve to know what he knows about alleged abuse of power by their elected leaders and their lackeys.

What was left of US credibility took another blow today with the publication in the The Age of more US cables, provided by Wikileaks, showing the US embassy in Jakarta had defended an alleged Indonesian war criminal and sought to hide what the US knew about his involvement in the 1991 Dili massacre and other atrocities in East Timor.

According to the report, the Jakarta embassy argued that army general Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, recently appointed by Yudhoyono as deputy defence minister, should be allowed to enter the United States (to attend a G20 meeting, no less) despite his alleged involvement in war crimes and state-sponsored terrorism by Indonesian forces in East Timor.

It took objections from the US embassy in Dili and a frank assessment of the implausibility of the general’s denials to convince Washington to overrule Jakarta and deny him a visa.

But even then, Washington kept its decision hush-hush, so as not to upset its partners in the Indonesian political elite, the same people who featured in other secret diplomatic cables about alleged abuse of power and corruption.

It’s not just about the rule of law, justice, alleged corruption and abuse of power. It’s about the impunity of the Indonesian military for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in places like East Timor, Papua, the Molukus and Jakarta during anti-communist purges, anti-Chinese massacres, anti-separatist wars and anti-democracy crackdowns under the Suharto dictatorship. Hundreds of thousands of people died in these murderous rampages but the generals responsible are rarely, if ever, held to account.

Instead they rise through the ranks, gain political influence and the wealth that goes with power, and are coddled by the United States. One of the Jakarta embassy cables described  Sjamsoeddin as crucial to military ties that are the “cornerstone of our efforts to ensure regional stability”.

So the US relationship with Indonesia, nay, the region as a whole, hinges on military ties, not justice or the rule of law.

How did that strategy go in Egypt?