The power and responsibility of media as well as the need for media plurality were brought home in a most compelling way during a forum organised by the Centre for Independent Journalism Malaysia, when an Indonesian journalist shared her personal experiences in reporting the civil conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Maluku province.
Insany Syahbarwaty, who heads the Maluku Media Centre, related how the media shifted from being reactive to proactively defusing the conflict through peace journalism after journalists from both sides of the religious divide got together and realised their role in perpetuating the conflict, which lasted from 1999 to 2002, resulting in 50,000 deaths.
Insany told the 60-plus crowd at the 8 May forum in Kuala Lumpur, held to commemorate World Press Freedom Day, that the conflict was the darkest period for her as a journalist.
“It was very difficult for journalists to do their job. We had our own internal conflict between our religious inclinations and professional obligations. There was also intimidating pressure from their respective religious communities to name and blame the perpetrators,” she recalled.
She said even if journalists wanted to cover both sides of the conflict, they could not because areas were divided by religion and anyone caught outside of their territory would face certain death. She had to hide her religious identity by exchanging her tudung for a cap in order to enter ‘hostile’ areas, and tag along trusted friends or with government officials.
She broke down several times during her talk, recalling the tragedy and how some of her friends had to pay the ultimate price for adhering to their professional dictates rather than succumbing to community pressure.
As with everyone in Maluku, the media, too, was segregated along religious lines geographically and in personal conviction. Before the conflict, the single media company in Ambon, which was in a Christian area, had staff from both religious backgrounds. But because of the religio-geographical limits journalists faced during the conflict, they were broken up to serve new media outlets created in other areas of their own religion. This bred distrust among journalists of different faiths and worsened partisan reporting, with journalists continuing to report one-sidedly by obtaining sources solely from their own religion.
“As a Muslim and also due to the geographical constraints at that time, I only reported that Muslims were attacked by and died in the hands of Christians. The Christian journalists did the same. The reading public seized on the information and killed the ‘other’ for revenge. The ethnically segregated media were under pressure from their respective religious communities to produce details of the violence and who committed them,” she said.
The result was tit-for-tat, unthinking reporting that merely reported on figures related to the violence, which in turn fed into the vengeful and emotional public on both sides of the conflict, fueling more violence.
Insany became emotional again when recalling one such incident.
“A misunderstanding resulted in a village being attacked by Muslims. A young man was chopped to death in pieces. Because of that single news report, which spread through word of mouth, the violence spread to North Maluku where, in an instant, 20,000 people were killed and many churches razed.”She said a lifeline came in the form of intervention from the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) in 2001, which brought journalists from both sides together to Bogor, to thrash out the issues, especially on the subject of the media as the main reason for the conflict continuing.
“We were fortunate because AJI saw that the journalists could not be saved if there was no one saving them. I’m so grateful to our colleagues. The killings would have continued otherwise,” she said.
Out of these discussions and meetings, the Maluku Media Centre was born as a ‘joint home’ and a clearing house of sorts for all media. Journalists from different faiths come together to discuss each other’s reports at length, providing the missing perspectives and input before publishing them.
“If we want, we can make media perpetuate the conflict or stop it. If we want it, it will happen. And we wanted peace. Slowly, with much difficulty, we did it. We wrote facts that brought out the humanist aspect, focusing on the qualitative rather than the quantitative. The community intimidation and pressure were still there, but we persevered,” she said.They could not count on the government to maintain law and order as it had its own political reasons to perpetuate the conflict. Till today, in fact, the government is still failing in setting about a true process of reconciliation by finding the root cause of the conflict.
“Journalists were proactive move long before government efforts to reconcile community. And it is still up to journalists to ensure peace remains. Because till today our areas are divided by religion. It’s like a tinder box waiting to ignite should a similar trigger happen again, if we don’t keep a watch out for the signs.”
She quoted the highly respected activist journalist Andreas Harsono’s words about being a journalist first above all else when called to duty, putting aside one’s other identities be they religious, ethnicity, nationality, and so on.
Insany's experience was echoed by fellow panelist Prangtip Daoreung, a freelance journalist who has researched the conflicts in Acheh and southern Thailand.
Prangtip said media are often trapped between the interests of the powerful and the demands of the parties in conflict, and a simple journalistic element such as verifying facts can become an uphill challenge. Citing the conflict in southern Thailand, she said facts available to journalists were often distorted by the sources.
“The challenge for journalists reporting conflict is to detach themselves from the various demands and be aware of not inflaming the issue or inadvertently contribute to the hatred,” she said.
Putting facts in context and giving voice to different groups are important measures, but a journalist cannot achieve this by working alone, she said, pointing out the need to work with those from different backgrounds in order to understand the local and bigger contexts before setting a collective standard on reporting.
Speaking about the situation in Malaysia, Editor and co-founder of The Nut Graph Jacqueline Ann Surin said, while it is comparatively peaceful here, the media's laxity in questioning convention can deepen communal cleavages.
“Is it relevant to bring in details such as race, religion and gender? Why do we see references to [the race riots tragedy of] May 13 but not the peaceful years before?Prof. Dr Mustafa K. Anuar from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) said journalists have to intervene to promote better understanding among communities in times of conflict.
“Perhaps the lack of reflection rather than control has got to do with the absence of stories that emphasise common experience and togetherness,” said Surin.
“The media should give voice to those making effort to establish peace, and not merely report the details of conflict or what the authorities have said. It is inadequate and dangerous to focus only about the violence, and not find out the root cause of any conflict,” he said.
The Maluku media experience provides a powerful and painful lesson here. For most part of the conflict, they were merely mirrors, reflecting what was around them unthinkingly and in so doing amplifying an already horrific situation to become worse.
Wiser now, they are taking on the role of activist journalism by educating society of the need and ways to protect peace. They went through reform professionally – through training on peace journalism by AJI – and structurally – in terms of creating a plural media environment within newsrooms and in the industry as a whole: the former, by having journalists of different faiths working together under the same roof; the latter, with the mushrooming of 54 newspapers, 32 radio stations, five local television stations and four news sites.
The forum ended with the launch of the CIJ annual review on freedom of expression in Malaysia for the year 2009. CIJ Executive Officer Masjaliza Hamzah, who moderated the forum, presented a copy of the review to the panelists.