Tag Archives: journalism

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)

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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)

A random stabbing or attack on press in Papua?

Amnesty International has demanded Indonesia conduct a quick and impartial investigation into the attempted stabbing murder of an Indonesian journalist who had exposed cases of rape by police in Papua province.

Papua is a place that the great democracy of Indonesia has sealed off from the outside world in order, some say, to hide the genocide it is committing against the indigenous Melanesian majority. So as much as independent reporters and rights workers would like to know the facts of the case, it is impossible to find out because they are not allowed to go there and check for themselves.

So we have to rely on the Indonesian government, and the police themselves, to tell us what happened. You can see where this is likely to end up. A day after the crime the national police are already saying the attack was not linked to the reporter’s work. We’ll just have to take their word for it.

Banjir Ambarita is a well respected freelance reporter and photographer. He is a vital source of information from Papua, not only for the Indonesian media in Jakarta but for the foreign media based there as well.

Unknown attackers ambushed him as he rode home on his motorcycle in Jayapura on Thursday morning. They stabbed him in the chest and the stomach, then fled. Banjir managed to get to a police station before he collapsed. He was rushed to hospital and is now in intensive care after surgery.

Those people who find it intellectually fashionable to criticise the media for shallow or trite reporting, think about Banjir and the work he does. There are many journalists like him, not only in Papua but around the world, including the Philippines, Egypt and Iraq. You rarely hear about them until they wind up dead on the side of a road or in intensive care with gunshot or stab wounds. They don’t take these risks for the money or the glory. None of them are rich. They do it because they believe people need to know what their governments and business leaders are up to.

Banjir recently wrote about two horrible cases of rape and sex abuse by the police in Papua. One involved a 15-year-old girl who was brutally gang-raped over a period of several days in February by four police officers and three civilians. Local media have reported the girl was detained in a house and beaten if she resisted.

The other case involved a married woman who had been detained for illegal gambling. Three police officers forced her to perform oral sex on multiple occasions while she was in custody from November to January. She reportedly tried to kill herself.

The first case is under investigation, and the police have promised to charge four officers allegedly involved. The provincial police chief has resigned to take moral responsibility for the second case, which is also under investigation. It is illuminating that the officers allegedly involved have already been forced to stand in the sun by way of punishment. It sounds like a POW camp, and some people would say that’s exactly what Papua is.

The Indonesian police are constantly mired in grubby scandals and allegations of torture, particularly in Papua. Yet officers rarely do the right and honourable thing and resign to take responsibility for the misconduct of their men.  It’s probably unwise to praise an Indonesian police officer at any time, given the skeletons that might lurk in his cupboard, but Jayapura police chief Imam Setiawan set a good example by resigning.

The UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, visited Indonesia in 2007  and wrote a pretty damning report about what he found. In a press release at the time, he said:

No country in the world is immune to the crimes of torture and ill-treatment: in the opinion of the Special Rapporteur, the key element in effectively combating this problem is for each and every State to recognize this reality and confront the problem head on.

Passing a law against torture and protecting journalists who expose police abuse would be a good start. According to Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists,  there were 46 cases of violence against journalists last year compared to 37 in 2009. Combined with abuse of defamation laws by businessmen and politicians, that’s a worrying trend for press freedom – and reform in general – in the world’s “third biggest democracy”.

Egypt and Indonesia: what comparison?

Firstly, forgive me for not updating this site more often lately. I’ve been busy and lazy  in equal measure, on holidays, on work missions and diverting my rave energies through other channels.

So much has happened in Indonesia over the past few months that I don’t know where to start. Of course I was sickened by the slaughter of Ahmadiyah followers by crazed Islamist brutes, and by the government’s pathetic response. I didn’t mean to watch the unedited video, I kind of saw it by accident. I couldn’t sleep that night. It was one of the most disgusting and disturbing things I’ve seen. I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you really want to know what’s happening in Indonesia in terms of religious thuggery there can be no better illustration. The Ahmadiyah man who filmed it is a hero.

In the past couple of weeks there have been a lot of attempts by Western journalists and analysts to compare the Egyptian uprising with the fall of Suharto in Indonesia. Most seem to be written by people who may, perhaps, feel a little bit of attention deficit disorder because they are not actually in the Middle East. In my opinion they are trying a little too hard to get in on the Egypt story by making flimsy analogies.

The argument follows a now-familiar pattern: the White House is using the Indonesia example as a model to game possible outcomes in Egypt and calibrate its response; the similarities between the two countries are “striking”;  Indonesia is a moderate Muslim-majority country where secular democracy has taken root; like Egypt, Indonesia has Islamist political parties; these parties have tried to advance their agendas at the ballot box but have failed; this comparison is illuminating.

I disagree. Sure, there are superficial similarities but the comparison is flawed. Even to the degree that it can be justified it is not particularly illuminating and doesn’t really say much about current events in Egypt or how that country may look in 10 years time.

Firstly, the Indonesian party everyone compares to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – the PKS – is fundamentally different in many ways. The PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) may share some genetic material with the Brotherhood but it is not the same critter. For a start it is not openly Islamist. It has existed for only around 10 years, not 80-odd like the brotherhood. It didn’t exist at all as a mass opposition movement against Suharto. And it has never had any significant popular support. The Brotherhood it ain’t.

In other words, there’s very little point talking about the PKS as a model for what a post-Mubarak Brotherhood might do. And anyway, no one in the Arab world looks to Indonesia for insight into political Islam, so even if there was a superficial comparison to be made it would not be one that would have any bearing on Egyptian affairs.

Revealingly, few of these analyses give much in the way of direct quotes from US officials about what precise parallels they see and why they are focusing on Indonesia, and not, say, Turkey. In one of the pieces linked to above,  the only direct quote from a US official says the Philppines and Chile are better case studies.

The other thing most of these comparisons have in common is that at some point they admit that their argument is thin and acknowledge that in fact the two countries are very different.

A better way to compare the two situations, in my very humble and uninformed opinion, is through the lens of justice. Despite all the fear-mongering about political Islam and Islamism, the uprising in Egypt does not seem to me to be about religion. People are united in their yearning for justice, for an end to rampant corruption, for an end to the unaccountability of the ruling elites, for an end to the brutality of the security forces.

Indonesians (and everyone else who has overthrown a dictator) know this yearning only too well. They gave vent to it in 1998 when they ousted Suharto in a secular, nationalist uprising sparked by a savage economic crisis. The fact that these were mainly Muslims on the streets wasn’t much noted in those pre-9/11 days. Now, when Westerners see Muslims on the streets, citing “jihad” and claiming the blessing of Allah, they tend to get fixated on the religious aspect and forget more important things like the universal desire for justice.

Robert Fisk says it well in today’s Independent. After explaining that Egypt’s uprising was pluralist and non-religious and therefore a defeat for radical Islam, he adds:

There’s a catch, of course. Almost all the millions of Arab demonstrators who wish to shrug off the cloak of autocracy which – with our Western help – has smothered their lives in humiliation and fear are indeed Muslims. And Muslims – unlike the “Christian” West – have not lost their faith. Under the stones and coshes of Mubarak’s police killers, they counter-attacked, shouting “Allah akbar” for this was indeed for them a “jihad” – not a religious war but a struggle for justice. “God is Great” and a demand for justice are entirely consistent. For the struggle against injustice is the very spirit of the Koran.

Fisk isn’t saying religion is central to the Egyptian uprsing, only that it’s the vocabulary of Islam that most Egyptians use to express their yearning for justice. The same can be said of many Indonesians. He concludes:

Better perhaps to ignore all the analysts and the “think tanks” whose silly “experts” dominate the satellite channels. If Czechs could have their freedom, why not the Egyptians? If dictators can be overthrown in Europe – first the fascists, then the Communists – why not in the great Arab Muslim world? And – just for a moment – keep religion out of this.

(Photo courtesy of siarragoddess via flickr)

News Barbie – that’s a no-brainer!

If you’re tired of TV stations giving you pretty young faces instead of experienced journalists, this one is for you. A journalism bimbo voodoo doll!

Stick her with pins, set her on fire, throw her down the toilet – do whatever it takes to exorcise those demonic thoughts that torment you almost every time you endure a news bulletin from a painted face instead of a journalist.

The manufacturers tell us she’s suitable for girls over three years of age, just like the TV news.  Unlike the real TV news reader, this one comes with a very helpful “choking hazard” warning. Wouldn’t it be nice if the real broadcasters were so considerate?

No pun intended

Maybe “bombshell revelations” isn’t the best choice of journalistic cliché to describe the Wikileaks files about the war in Afghanistan.

Be that as it may, the leaks will have done a great service if they focus US minds on America’s so-called ally Pakistan. It has been clear for years that the Pakistanis are supporting the Taliban, and these documents make it even harder for Islamabad to deny and Washington to downplay.

Closer to home, some other recent links worth noting include this one from a rather unimpressed Australian correspondent in Medan, and another by previously mentioned Tom Allard of the Sydney Morning Herald about the chilling official ambivalence toward Islamist extremists in Indonesia.

It’s the sort of “critical” coverage that some people would prefer not to read, but which others see as a valuable foil to the market-driven analysis of Indonesia as an “investment Shangri-La”. The fact is that attacks by Islamic radicals on minority groups are rising – and some observers are beginning to question whether Indonesia’s famous tolerance extends a little too far in favour of Muslim fanatics at the expense of civil society.

There’s also this good comparison of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the Lusi mudflow on Java. Fairfax reporter Eric Ellis looks at 2014 presidential contender Aburizal Bakrie’s record on this and many other issues and concludes: “For supporters of continued Indonesian reform and accountability, the current popular president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, could be as good as it gets.” Not a very upbeat thought for the day.

Meanwhile the Indonesian government – having done virtually nothing about the mud disaster allegedly triggered by a Bakrie-affiliated company – is threatening to sue a Thai company over environmental damage supposedly inflicted on its coastline by an oil leak off northwestern Australia earlier this year. As usual, the hypocrisy meter is off the scale.

Catching up on some other news I’ve missed lately, rights groups and victims are condemning the Obama administration’s decision to resume aid to the Indonesian special forces. These are the same “elite” troops accused of gross and ongoing human rights abuses in places like Papua. Nice one Obama. That’s called re-engagement with the Muslim world.

Contrast the US attitude with Vanuatu’s. The Pacific island state is pushing its neighbours to challenge Indonesia’s disputed sovereignty over West Papua. Vanuatu’s parliament has expressed solidarity with their ethnic Melanesian “brothers” who form the majority in the Indonesian-ruled western half of New Guinea island. They have sought a UN ruling on the process by which the vast, resource-rich territory was ceded to Indonesia by the Netherlands through a vote seen by many as a sham. Indonesia’s claims to sovereignty could end up before the  International Court of Justice, a prospect that is making some people very nervous.

Upshot – news by numbers?

Yahoo! has just launched a news “blog” called Upshot. Here’s their mission statement. Editor Andrew Golis promises to “cut through the noise and misinformation and get to the heart of what’s important and why”. Haven’t we heard that before? He continues:

Let me also say that our responsibility is to you — not to our sources, not to people with power, not to other people in the media. We understand that you will read us and we’ll  be able to pay our bills only if we earn your trust. We’ll be nonpartisan and hold everyone to the same, high standard. And we’ll also avoid the lazy reporting practice of just getting quotes from opposing sides and hoping that gets you closer to understanding the truth.

Not responsible to sources? Good luck getting them to talk to you, then. Not answering to people with power? Except, I assume, the people with the most power – the advertisers. Nonpartisan? If that means not being like Fox News, then great.

But if you’re not going to be “lazy” by simply quoting opposing sides, and if you aim to expose the truth, at some point you’re going to have to be partisan. As we’ve seen with the Octavia Nasr sacking, nonpartisan often means pandering to views which don’t have any credibility.

CNN sacked Nasr after certain lobbyists suggested she was a “terrorist sympathiser” for expressing respect (in a twitter message) for a late Shiite cleric who, while a leader of the Hezbollah militia, had a relatively liberal view of women’s rights. Rather than standing up for an employee of 20 years, CNN cited the need to protect their objectivity in the eyes of (certain important) readers and gave her the flick.

Thinking journalists are perfectly right to be partisan when it is the responsible thing to do. Should journalists balance stories about the dangers of smoking with tobacco industry propaganda? Should they balance stories about climate science with the half-baked pseudo-science of the quacks and deniers? Or on biology – must we balance evolution with creationism? Will Upshot ignore or, even better, aggressively criticise American creationists in defence of the truth of evolution? We’ll see.

How will Upshot report, say, a new Tiananmen uprising?

In Indonesia a story in the news this week is a court challenge to the banning of the film “Balibo”, which depicts, based on witness testimony and credible historical evidence, the murder of six journalists by Indonesian troops in East Timor in 1975. The atrocity is now, belatedly, subject to an Australian war crimes investigation. Indonesia says the reporters died in crossfire and banned the film because it is “not balanced” and does not give its side of the story. It has never held an inquest, although an ex-soldier has publicly confessed that, indeed, the reporters were murdered.

The point here is that you can’t balance a story with lies or humbug.

Getting back to the beginning, an interesting thing about Upshot (see the actual news blog here) is that despite all the promises of quality, news-breaking journalism blogging, its news sense is going to be led to a great extent by search algorithms.

Erick Schonfeld at Techcrunch put it this way:

The editors and writers will use search data to pick which stories to pursue. So what kinds of stories are people searching for today? The Upshot hopes they are looking for a video of Israeli soldiers doing a dance to Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok,” the London clubbing habits of alleged Russian spy Anna Chapman, and a handy list of RNC chairman Michael Steele’s five biggest blunders. There are some serious stories in there too such as one on ballooning state and local budget deficits (“Will regional governments go the way of Greece?”). I’d love to see a scoreboard showing the pageviews of how the algorithmically-chosen stories do versus the ones assigned by the human editors. God help us all.

So as CNN sacks a veteran reporter for expressing an opinion, Yahoo is opening a newsroom that promises to let search algorithms guide its editorial policy. Brilliant. I hope you like stories about Lindsay Lohan and Paul the psychic World Cup octopus…

(OK I confess, I like the octopus too)…

If you like that sort of thing, the thinking behind Upshot is called the “democratisation” of news. If you don’t, it’s just another way to get advertisers to pay more by offering a more targeted readership. Given the demise of newspapers, maybe it’s journalism’s only hope.

At the end of the day, consumers of the news media generally get what they deserve.

(Photo courtesy of alex-s via flickr)