- Journalism and Conflict in Indonesia: From Reporting Violence to Promoting Peace by Steve Sharp
This first book by Steve Sharp, a former journalist and media and journalism educator, attempts to do quite a number of things, many of them very well. An examination of how two Jakarta dailies, Kompas and Republika, dealt with the cultural dimensions of the “full-scale communal war in the Maluku Province,” the book advances the hypothesis that “media workers—far from being disinterested purveyors of unproblematic truths—are implicated in the creation and spread of ideas and images that shape the political discourses that exacerbate violent conflict” (p. 2).
This hypothesis, while not especially controversial, is quite interesting to consider in light of the violent conflict in Maluku that began in January 1999, and by March 2001 had killed as many as nine thousand people. The first five chapters of the book provide the theoretical background necessary to understand Sharp’s hypothesis, mostly consisting of admirably detailed reviews of various published academic resources. Sharp’s work draws upon communication theory as well as insights from history, political science, and sociology to provide discussions of the role of media narratives in covering conflict, the history of Indonesian press culture, the history of Indonesia’s center–periphery relations and the frequently resulting violence, and the ways in which cultural identities, especially those labeled “primordialist,” have formed a basis for political mobilization. These first chapters, though useful, take up a large portion of the book, and perhaps reflect the origins of the work as a doctoral dissertation. Only one of the book’s seven chapters is actually devoted to media coverage of the conflict, and it is surprisingly limited in scope, focusing on the analysis of selected stories from Kompas and Republika. A final chapter offers suggestions as to how professional journalistic practices might be changed to assist in the creation of a media environment that does not aid in the escalation of conflict.
Kompas was in many ways the New Order newspaper par excellence, operating easily within the constraints of government restrictions, and downplaying the religious affiliations of its Catholic-owned publishing group (p. 57). Republika, on the other hand, was founded in 1993 by ICMI (Ikatan Cendekiawan Muslim Indonesia, the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals), under the chairmanship of then-Minister of Research and Technology B. J. Habibie, with the express purpose of serving the Muslim community. In 1999, after B. J. Habibie was defeated in the presidential election, Republika foundered. In 2000, when Mahaka Media bought Republika, CEO Erick Thorir promised that Republika would continue to serve the Muslim community, but on a commercial basis. Surprisingly, Stark fails to note this change in ownership, and how it might have affected coverage of the conflict in Maluku.
On the first page of the introduction, Stark notes how today, more than ten years after the war in Maluku subsided, there is still no agreement among analysts as to how the conflict should be represented, adding, “if analysts still disagree, it is perhaps unfair to expect the news media in the chaotic interregnum of the late 1990s to have achieved an easy consensus” (p. 1). This is an essential point. One might ask if the scholars he so diligently analyzes are unable to agree on the source or meaning of the conflict in either North or South Maluku, is it even reasonable to expect that journalists [End Page 139] working at the time would have been able to do anything other than draw upon tropes created in the New Order?
Chapter six, “Framing Religious Conflict: Primordialism Writ Large” (pp. 157–74), suggests that the answer to this rhetorical question is a resounding “no.” In his analysis of stories published in Kompas and Republika between July 1999 and June 2000, Stark notes that both papers displayed “a lack of continuity in news narratives over time” (p. 157). Both papers relied too much on descriptive accounts, official statements from military and civilian sources, and commentary from talking heads in Jakarta— commentary that invariably lacked context...