Hoaxes from the Top of the Ladder

A “hoax” in common Indonesian parlance is equivalent to the American terms of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” They are quintessentially falsehoods or deviations from truths—minor or major—spread about by multiple sources, with either clear or vague purposes. We can easily see these sorts of fabrications in any media outlet.

Take social media for example. How often do we open up our Facebooks, Twitters, et cetera and find friends, family, colleagues posting nonsensical articles. For instance, cures for cancer through vegetarianism, flat earth hypotheses, and any other topic which are supported by no concrete fact whatsoever (UI, 2017). These tall tales are bad enough as they could be both misleading and at worst, grant false hopes to their readers. But it would be a mistake to think that hoaxes can come only from members of the general public. As unfortunately, these items of untruths could also originate from the most powerful entities of society, including news corporations and governing bodies.

What I have essentially uttered is that sometimes, the people who we are supposed to entrust with our understanding of the world can, would, and have lied on multiple occasions. Furthermore, these instances are not isolated to merely a few nations. Rather, it happens—I would wager—in nearly all countries that exist across the globe. However I cannot provide such a complete analysis as my knowledge is sadly still limited. What I can showcase is how both Indonesia’s government has manipulated information to be more palatable to its citizens, and thus allow it to gather support for their operations. One particular event in Indonesia’s history illustrates this point succinctly.

Nearly all Indonesians are familiar with Indonesia’s second president, Muhammad Suharto. Suharto is a man who causes debate whenever his name pops up. Some Indonesians consider him to be a better leader than his predecessor, Sukarno, as he was capable of uniting Indonesia by means of force—something Sukarno was incapable of doing through his comparatively softer approach. Yet many would also denounce him to be a murderous tyrant, who does not care for the needs of the common folk, merely seeking means to entrench his power (Berger, 2008). Which of these judgments are accurate? That depends on who one seeks information from.

During the Suharto era, free speech basically became a myth for Indonesians; be they journalists, writers, or ordinary citizens. As any who dared to raise a finger against Suharto would be swiftly subdued, either through imprisonment or sudden and unexplainable disappearances. Even if their forms of verbal and written retaliations are completely based on facts (Erlanger, 1998).

But what kinds of atrocities did Suharto commit—other than strangling the freedom of expression—that warrants condemnations from the Indonesian peoples? For starters, he initiated the hunt for Indonesian communists in the first of October 1965. A campaign that started with the murder of six army generals, a complete takeover of all media and communication outlets, and the detainment of then President Sukarno. All on the false basis, as told by Suharto and his cadres, that the Indonesian Communist Party—PKI—were attempting to establish a wholly communist state in Indonesia through violence (McVey & Anderson, 1978).

The anti-communist crusade continued with the killings of any communist sympathizers. Pro-communism government official, ordinary civilians suspected to be sympathetic to the communist cause, or those merely associated with communists were subject to government-mandated persecutions, assaults, and executions. The result was the deaths hundreds of thousands of Indonesian lives (Chomsky, 2011 ).

At the end of the anti-communist purge, Suharto took power over Indonesia, becoming its president without any electoral process. Although he had managed to obtain the highest level of political power in the archipelagic state, he did not stop his murderous streak. As any territory—such as his invasion and occupation of East Timor—organizations and individuals who rose up against him were pursued, and suffered similar fates to those of the purged communists.

The crimes Suharto committed to his dissidents, the ones who dared to criticize his leadership are nothing short of inhumane. Yet not all Indonesians or peoples of the international community viewed Suharto as the dictator and tyrant he was. Why? Because neither the Indonesian media nor the news streams of other nations, particularly the West, reported Suharto’s actions with complete honesty.

In Indonesia, it was completely impossible to criticize Suharto publicly. Or at least do so in an effective way, in other words, widespread and acknowledged by the common people. Indonesian media outlets were after all controlled by Suharto’s government, and all reports published by said outlets had to be approved by the governing body (Erlanger, 2008). Otherwise, the media bodies and persons pertaining to what is perceived to be a distasteful story by Suharto and his crew may very well have their corporations brought down, the employees relinquished from their respective positions, or at worst individually disappear. Thus there was practically no report published with truthfulness, for to mention facts would incite aggression from the government.

Meanwhile in the Western hemisphere, particularly in the United States of America, a similar dishonesty in news reporting was also taking place. It is no longer a secret that the US was directly involved in aiding Suharto execute his takeover to further its own agenda—an Indonesia more cooperative to the West than the East, which is another way to say that the US sought an Indonesia obedient to the US’ whims and not the communists of the East; the modus operandi of the US in regards to states likely to align themselves with the Eastern Block (Chomsky, 2016). In order to do so, they had to transform Sukarno’s pro-communism Indonesia and they managed to do so by way of Suharto.

Hence whilst Suharto was massacring the peoples of Indonesia who were discontent with his rule, the US media did not shine an objective light towards these state-sponsored acts of terror. Rather, they portrayed Suharto as a beacon of hope for democracy, even though he was not an elected president, who in addition enacted a law that pretty much amounted to coercing every single government of employee to vote for him and his political party, Golkar, in any and all upcoming elections (Staff, 2017). The enactment of such a law, needless to say, is an act that directly contrasts with the notion of democracy, where the common people should be free to choose whomever they see fit to shepherd them. Yet the US, the supposed champion of democracy, blinded its eyes to all these anti-democratic deeds.

As for the aforementioned acts genocide Suharto launched in the purge of communists from Indonesia, with an estimated civilian death toll ranging from 200,000 to 1,000,000 souls, the occupation of East Timor which decreased its population by 200,000 people, the US media quickly found ways to justify his actions (Tanter, 2007). With most of their news illustrating the killings as a necessary evil for Indonesia to ensure stability within its own borders. For instance, the New York Times repeatedly threw praises at Suharto for his murderous streak (Naureckas, 2017),

[…] the Times’ commentary and analysis viewed the destruction of the Communist party quite favorably. “A Gleam of Light in Asia” was the headline of a James Reston column. “Almost everyone [Indonesians and Americans] is pleased by the changes now being wrought,” C.L. Sulzberger commented. The Times itself editorialized that the Indonesian military was “rightly playing its part with utmost caution [in eliminating perceived threats].”

Thus the US media blatantly disregarded the fact that many of the countless murdered were ordinary civilians, incapable of launching any form of disruptive military attacks in Indonesia. Instead the victims were painted to be armed rebels, legitimate threats to Indonesia’s security who needed to be brought down (Chomsky, 2002). And thus another portrayal of Suharto was born, that of the war hero who seeks peace by any means necessary, even if it meant bloodying his hands with the blood of his own people.

However, Indonesians and the people of the West were showcased a benevolent crusader who would never waver from securing Indonesia’s independence no matter the cost. A leader who knew how to build a prosperous, stable nation out of chaos. Yet as stated above, nothing of the sort could be said to be truthful.

What Indonesians actually had was a dictator; a man who sought nothing but power for himself and his cadre through sacrificing the well-being of those under his rule. Yet many Indonesians, and the people of the West saw the fictitious, noble version of Suharto as a consequence of active manipulation from the media. Thus enabling further support for the tyrant, minimizing the willingness of the Indonesians to rebel against Suharto’s regime.

Though Suharto has fallen from his throne, we must make no mistake, as the case of Suharto-esque media manipulation continues to this day in Indonesia. Television channels, newspapers, magazines, any platform of media one could dream of is either funder or owned by members of Indonesia’s various political parties (Staff, 2014). Ownerships that result in a media landscape populated by conflicting news reports with repeated occasions of one news station reporting favorably on a member of the party which owns it, while the rivals proceed to try their best at discrediting the positive reports, or painting entirely different pictures—sadly I must again be vague, as though there are cases to be shown, publicly pointing them out would likely put myself in jeopardy.

As a consequence of the torn media landscape of Indonesia, not a soul—except those in power—can truly tell what is happening within their country. Those who tune in only to select channels or read certain newspapers exclusively would not obtain the full picture of the events that surround them. To the people who cling to only one or two news sources, they are essentially reliving the era of Suharto’s media manipulation. Although journalists may no longer be murdered by the state, the power to alter the public’s agenda remains, in the shape of members of political parties actively tampering with journalism. Meanwhile, the common people can easily be driven into confusion, fear, anger and so on, courtesy of the shaped perspectives given to them.

Unfortunately I cannot explicitly or even implicitly state the contemporary, probable hoaxes Indonesia’s current elites feed to the masses. As doing so would likely land me in prison, or at the very least force me to apologize in public against those I wish I could openly speak out against. Indonesia’s laws against slander are incredibly vague, allowing any critic who provides inputs perceived to be “inappropriate” or “impolite” to be sued by the government—a tool commonly used by politicians or other persons of power to beautify themselves and throw down almost all dissenters (Schonhardt, 2010). These laws are why I chose to write about the Suharto’s era of governance, which is now fortunately open for discussion, debate, and of course criticism as a demonstration of a government eagerly altering information consumed by the Indonesian public.

Essentially, even with the end of a media-manipulating dictator’s era, hoaxes continue to pour out from the political elite. Hoaxes that directly affect how the people of Indonesia see and act within their nation. Thus even if their hearts are in the right places, their actions may not be beneficial to the country, as they might be operating on an agenda not entirely of their own.

Although I showcased a bleak landscape of how ordinary Indonesians have and continue to be lied to by their more politically savvy counterparts, this does not mean that we cannot find truth in Indonesia. The simplest method to counteract the rhetoric of conflicting media is to read as many sources as possible concerning any news reports, including sources originating from outside the country. As more information is gathered, despite the risk of being overwhelmed by the amount of data, there is the possibility of gleaming truth from all that was gathered. Simple yet difficult, much like digging in a mine and refining the chunks of rock to find the gems hidden within.

For those with an interest in political matters, there is a more complex but easier method of gleaming truth from the media. For this approach one must first understand the political climate of Indonesia along with which party controls which media outlet. Should one be able to do both these things, then they would be capable of clearly seeing biased reports and find one that is most accurate. Of course, the challenge comes with comprehending Indonesian politics, though the bounty that comes from accomplishing such an endeavor is having a lens capable of seeing through the fog generated by conflicting media reports.

In alignment with the idea of extending comprehension, the last method I can propose would be to read as much unbiased material as possible; be they newspapers from various sources alongside magazines, non-fiction books related to current matters, journal articles, essentially anything that is produced by sources not under the control of Indonesia’s political entities.

We are not powerless against the influence of Indonesia’s politically-tainted media, nor should we surrender ourselves to it. To do so would be to undo the efforts of those who have sacrificed their lives to overthrow the manipulative regime of Suharto. Indonesians, as a people, must not believe all the tales told to them.

Should we ignore the existence of hoaxes thrown at us from political elites, then we would be nothing but mere pawns. Mindless drones ready to be fed information, or instructions, depending on whatever the powerful feel would be suitable for their agenda. In doing otherwise, in acknowledging that we must remain vigilant against hoaxes from any and all sources, we are actively refusing and rebelling to be the sheep the powerful yet devious wish us to be.


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