404: Information Missing From Your Daily News
Summaries of under-reported news, short updates on previous Monitor stories
Call it the most
dramatic news story of the year, maybe the decade: A million or more people rise up to overthrow a ruthless tyrant, despite ever- present risk of genocide from troops with a murderous history. But by week's end, with the dicator toppled and free elections in sight, the army reasserts its control, leaving their nation's future as murky as before.
With such dramatic events breaking, it was only natural that the U.S. media gave most of its attention to .... Frank Sinatra.
Foulups in the American press are a familiar theme in the "404" section, which often shows how the media overlooks important angles on today's news. (Click here to see the previous 404 report.) But recent events in Indonesia -- and the astonishing failures of the American press -- were so remarkable that they deserve a special 404 report of their own.
Anyone comparing Asian and American newspapers during the past weeks would think they were reporting on completely different events. The differences were Orwellian; the American reporting was whitewashed, the historic and dramatic turned humdrum and predictable. Readers in Bangkok, Singapore, and Jakarta knew that there were up to 70,000 protesters occupying Indonesia's Parliment building last week; most Americans probably thought it was just a few thousand, maybe hundreds. Maybe dozens. Nationwide a great popular uprising brought a million out in protest, despite the risk of violence. Yet to most American readers, it was nothing more than a slightly unusual transfer of power in a distant, economically troubled country.
But what happened was as important as the 1986 "people power" overthrow of Marcos in the Phillippines, or China's 1989 brutal suppression of its fledgling democracy movement that ended in the Tiananmen Square slaughter. Both events had extensive coverage in the American press at the time, and their importance still resonates today.
Then why did the American press fail to report accurately about events in Indonesia?
Not Your Typical Riots For background, start by reading "The Dictator's Fall" that appeared earlier in the Monitor -- it's a good overview of events leading up to Suharto's resignation.
Besides omitting important facts, the U.S. media's greatest failure was not explaining context. A typical bland overview appeared in the Boston Globe:
While Suharto had faced down threats to his rule numerous times, his last and insurmountable troubles began last January, with a run on the currency... In February, almost-daily price riots that targeted the country's rich ethnic Chinese kept up the pressure... By March, the month that Suharto was reappointed to office by an assembly he controlled, university students nationwide began peaceful protests that first asked for democratic reforms, and that finally culminated this month with demands for Suharto to step down.It presents Indonesia's crisis as something any middle- class American might identify with -- tension over shortages and skyrocketing prices (and yes, even the scapegoating a minority group). But Indonesia's tensions had deeper roots. Fears of another "year of living dangerously" -- the 1965 military coup where 500,000 or more died and thousands more were tortured and imprisoned -- were always in the back of Indonesian's mind. People wondered: Did a general's statement imply that a coup or crackdown was imminent? Were soldiers spotted downtown? How many activists have disappeared? Rumors spread.
The trigger event was the mid-May killing of six students at a prestigious business university. Children of the wealth and elite were shot in the back following a peaceful protest. Indonesians got the message: No one was safe. In the rage that followed, more than 500 died in the worst Indonesian riots in three decades. Students and others took to the streets, fighting running battles with police and troops. Looters died in burning department stores; nine ethnic Chinese died when mobs set fires near their shops and homes. Skulls and charred bones were visible in rubble the next day. The U.S. press focused on the mob violence and rioting, rarely mentioning the fears lying behind.
When riots quelled, American reporters spun punditry. It seemed assumed that Suharto only had weeks or months left to rule, and that all eyes were on the army's next move. Articles were almost interchangeable ("Indonesians Ask, After Suharto, Then What?" -- Washington Post; "Jakarta's Worry: What Comes Next?" -- New York Times).
The U.S. press -- infamous for reporting only on aspects of world events that touch our own interests -- carried stories about worried American corporations and investors, but ignored were other events that showed the crisis was yet to peak.
Taiwan and Japan sent part of their naval fleet to the area to help evacuate nationals. Nearby Malaysia began patroling its waters against any possible mass refugee exodus, while also preparing for the possible evacuation of its nationals by ferry or civilian airlines. Meanwhile, Australia -- now governed by a right- wing reactionary party -- pushed forward with massive joint naval and air exercises with the Indonesian military. Indonesians saw this as an act of Aussie solidarity with the dictator. (Hedging its bets, Australia was also preparing to evacuate its citizens on chartered jets.)
Also rarely mentioned was that not all the riot targets were random; the central Jakarta home of Indonesia's wealthiest man, Liem Sioe Liong, was attacked. Banks and businesses closely associated with the Suharto family were likewise singled out.
Missed completely was perhaps the most important cue of what was to come. That the coming Wednesday, May 20th -- exactly one week after the student killings -- was an important national holiday: the "Day of Awakening," celebrating the the 90th anniversary of the first student movement in Indonesia and the anti-colonial uprising.
Rioters or Protesters? While American writers were speculating on which general would push forward to become the next dictator, the students all but disappeared from the stories. Notable was an analysis in the Sunday, May 17 New York Times by Nicholas D. Kristof, who said that Indonesians were too scared, too unorganized, too powerless to have much influence at this critical time:
Could Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation, be upended by the kind of "people power" movement that unseated Ferdinand Marcos in the Phillippines in 1986? ... For now, the situation is quite different. Most important, the incipient people power movement in Indonesia is short of two things: people and power.
The Times's glib writer was badly mistaken. After the murder of the six students, a true "people power" movement gathered momentum by the hour.
On Friday, May 15, the day after the end of the riots, tens of thousands of students marched in Bandung, Indonesia's third largest city. Thousands more protested in Semarang, closing down Indonesia's fifth- largest city. The demonstrators there also occupied the government's powerful radio station, Radio Republik Indonesia, broadcasting their demands. Never in the 32-year Suharto regime had such widespread protests happened -- yet none of this made a blip in the American press. Typical of its armchair coverage, the Associated Press parroted news from the government- approved Jakarta Post about minor rioting and looting in distant towns.
Meanwhile, students converged on the capital of Jakarta. Determined youths filled trucks, buses, trains, headed towards the expected Wednesday mass demonstration. James East wrote in the Bangkok Post:
The students, from all religious and ethnic backgrounds, came in their green, yellow, red, blue and orange college uniforms. They came from across Indonesia, bringing with them their hopes for a future without Gen Suharto, without corruption, without nepotism. Many from Jakarta, others had made their way from rural Java and Sumatra, and Kalimantan, their number thinned by army roadblocks on the way.While many U.S. newspapers noted that there were students gathering in Jakarta and a troop buildup, details were vague. The AP again played the regime's song, linking expected protests with fears of riots and looting.
Not mentioned were clear signs that the students sought liberty, not department store loot. On Tuesday, a minor fire in a government building briefly raised fears -- but the only items burned were 1968 documents proclaiming Suharto as officially Indonesia's president.
How Many Students? Wednesday, May 20, dawned on a Jakarta under siege.
Tanks and barbed wire blocked the main city streets. Protesters intended to gather midday at the huge Monas Monument Square. But the demonstration was cancelled by Muslim leader Amien Rais, following a chilling comment from a general that the military wouldn't hesitate to open fire like the Chinese did at Tiananmen Square. Undeterred, the demonstrators settled instead to gather at the nation's Parliament, where students had taken over the the huge building and grounds.
But an important detail was left hanging: How many students were there at the Parliament, anyway?
The most conservative estimate found in an Asian newspaper was "more than 10,000" (Singapore Straits Times); the highest was "more than 60,000" (Thailand's newspaper Nation). Readers of the U.S. press found crowds much smaller.
Typical was a LA Times story that didn't mention any estimate at all. Neither did the AP, except to deceptively note, "...About 500 students who took over Parliament several days ago as part of a wave of anti-Suharto protests cheered the president's resignation..." (This count was also used by a stringer for the San Francisco Chronicle.) The Washington Post offered a similarly deceptive report: "... Dozens of jubilant students leaped into the fountain in front of the parliament chamber; others danced with frantic abandon. About two dozen more gathered in a group and solemnly sang..."
At least some idea of the crowd size appeared in The New York Times, whose May 21 front page carried a remarkable picture of yellow-clad students waving flags, and another inside photo of students occupying the floor of Parliament, captioned that about 3,000 students were sleeping there. (Both photos were from Agence France-Press, which produced the best coverage outside of Asia.) The Times also hinted that it was a remarkable scene: "... Legislators worked today in hushed offices on the upper floors of the building while thousands of rowdy, cheering student demonstrators filled its halls and courtyards..."
According to many Asian papers, it was remarkable, indeed. By 4:30 in the afternoon, the flood of protesters had jammed public transit, even though most businesses were closed. To students occupying Parliament, newcomers brought rice dishes and mineral water. Outside, hundreds climbed the top of the building to raise banners. From the Indonesian newspaper, Kompas:
Thousands of students now fill almost all rooms and corridors of the Parliament building. They sleep sprawled on chairs, on the floor covered with newspapers or used cartons. The atmosphere inside the building is extremely noisy, while the floors are covered with debris.Although the protests at Parliament were the focal point, demonstrations took place simultaneously in other cities. Give credit to the LA Times for noting that as many as one million Indonesians stood up for freedom that day -- but it appears that they were the only U.S. newspaper to report this.
The American Spin If the U.S. papers didn't cover the astonishing Wednesday protests, then what did they cover?
The May 21 New York Times -- the edition with the photos from the French wire service -- had fewer than a dozen paragraphs about the students, despite more than a full page of coverage. Articles included a call for reform from the White House, with discussion of possible problems with the IMF bailout; an article about the military; a general article about Suharto's resignation, and another profiling the opposition leadership.
The same day's Washington Post had five articles. Only one mentioned in passing that there were thousands of demonstrators; the single article about the students was presented as "color" describing the popular reaction. Likewise using the protesters' emotions, AP -- which had only mentioned 500 students -- distributed a widely- reprinted photo of six youths hugging and weeping in joy.
An article in the Friday NY Times correctly portrayed the midweek events as a confrontation between the protesters and military. For the first time there were hints of the size of the demonstration and its fury:
...the protesters [are] fresh from having brought down one President and eager to fell another. Today tens of thousands of demonstrators poured into the Parliament compound, which has become the focal point of the democracy movement... banners denouncing Mr. Habibie dangled from the windows, and posters on a budding 'Democracy Wall' declared, 'Habibie is Suharto's puppet. Do not accept him!'But in its three page coverage that day, far more space was given to speculation about investment and future of the $43 billion IMF bailout.
A pattern emerges. In the U.S. press, little mention was given to "people power" -- except for The Times commentary described above, which goes to great lengths to show how it didn't apply to this situation. Yet it's an emotionally- laden term that was heard often during the week -- at least, in the Asian press. Muslim leader Amien Rais was quoted using it repeatedly, and new president Habibie even credited it with Suharto's resignation in his first speech. Instead, American media concentrated on financial angles and backroom dealings between Indonesian generals and bureaucrats.
While economics and political maneuvering were certainly important aspects to the story, the popular uprising was the catalyst. But by the end of the week, the students had almost disappeared from the narrative. In a Sunday Washington Post wrapup story, "Seven Days in May That Toppled a Titan," demonstrators were reduced to being an ineffectual greek chorus supporting Parliament speaker Harmoko's call for the president to resign. It was a nearly complete inversion of the true events.
Counterprotest or Contelpro? Although certainly not intentional, the U.S. press gave the Indonesian military a boost that helped it discredit the populist movement.
By Thursday, most demonstrators were returning home content. They had forced the resignation of hated General Suharto, and even humiliated him, to boot. But thousands still lingered in the Parliament building and its grounds, demanding nothing less than complete democracy.
Both The New York Times and Washington Post reported that competing banners began appearing on Friday in the long plaza in front of Parliament. On one side were the familiar signs demanding true reform; the new banners were in support of president Habibie. Times writer Mark Lander reported:
After three months of absolute unity in fighting President Suharto, the student movement began to splinter into factions that support... Habibie, and factions that condemn him as a Suharto crony... The Islamic Youth Movement's mere presence at the Parliment angered some student demonstrators... students, who have been nervous about efforts to sabotage their movement from the beginning of the protests, said on Friday that the Muslim contingent had been organized by a third party to weaken the unity of the students...Those stories treated these newcomers far too kindly. In the Asian press they were shown to be violent and unquestionably pawns of pro-Suharto forces. Andreas Harsono, whose Indonesian reporting has often appeared in the Monitor, wrote:
...Around 15,000 youths, who claimed to represent the little-known Islamic Youth Movement, stormed the compound of the Parliament and shouted their support for Suharto and Habibie.Another first-hand account appeared in the newspaper, Kompas:
After Friday prayers, more people joined [the counter- demonstrators]. Thousands moved in long lines from the mosque behind toward the students. They then tried to break through the student lines.Intentional or no, the U.S. press helped the army by not revealing the violence, or the context of an opposing group "spontaneously" appearing like this. Friday night, claiming that they were needed to defuse the conflict between the opposing sides, the military pushed its way into the Parliament grounds. All students were evicted.
How exactly that happened is unclear. In all U.S. press accounts that appeared the next day, the army used non- violent tactics, and in an inventive way; about 100 soldiers moved between the opposing student sides and unexpectedly began to sing and dance. Widely reprinted was an Associated Press photo of smiling soldiers dancing amid piles of automatic weapons.
But first reports were not so charming. Compare the beginning of these two reports that appeared on the AP wire, eight hours apart. The one on the right was the final version, and the only one used by U.S. newspapers:
Why Did the American Press Fail? There is, of course, no media conspiracy to fib to the public. The editors at The New York Times, Washington Post, and AP didn't meet over cigars and cognac to agree on a common way to present this story. But why are all American versions so similar, yet so different from Asian reports?
There are probably several reasons. One is our general American ignorance of Indonesia. Quick: Locate the nation on the map. (Hint -- find Australia and look northwest, toward Vietnam.) Although it's the fourth largest nation in the world, only about 1 out of 400 Americans is Indonesian -- less than half of our Filipino- American population. Also, in the U.S. there was no vocal anti-Suharto movement like there was in the Netherlands and Australia, both of which have proportionally larger numbers of Indonesians. They are an unrepresented community, both politically and in the newsroom. Doubtless few editors realized that their stories were incomplete and stunk of propaganda.
Also important is "CNN bias." It's no secret that this cable TV channel has dictated foreign news coverage, particularly since the Gulf War. And during the crisis, CNN presented mostly photogenic scenes of small groups of students, as shown at left, below. While it was easy to film a handful of students marching down the street, pictures of larger groups were far more difficult in this situation. No aerial shots were apparently available, making it hard to portray the crowd's size.
There are also questions about how reporters and editors used other unreliable sources. Associated Press, for example, clearly leaned heavily upon the officially- sanctioned Jakarta Post -- probably the media source most biased towards Indonesia's power elite. Thus demonstrators were discredited as rioters and looters, with little or no explanation given of the political aspect of most of these events. Nowhere in the American press can be found quotes attributed to newspaper like Thailand's Nation or Bangkok Post, Singapore Straits Times, South China Morning Post, or the many other Indonesian, Australian, and other secondary sources used here to compare coverage.
Overall, U.S. coverage echoed the Indonesian military viewpoint; the only significant exception is The New York Times, which gave readers some inkling of the student movement's scope and passion -- thanks in part to its reprinting those pictures from the French wire service.
No to be diminshed is pressure from financial interests, such as the importance of the IMF bailout to U.S. investors. Since the November crash of the economies in Asia, the U.S. press has been skittish about reporting bad news -- and not just about Indonesia, or other countries receiving IMF money. Mostly ignored was a gloomy April forecast from Sony chairman Norio Ohga, who warned that Japan's economy was close to a collapse that could lead to a worldwide recession. With Western nations now enjoying booming stock markets, few media are willing to publish or broadcast bad news that risks inciting market panic.
As a result of all factors listed here, U.S. media gave the financial implications of these events heavy coverage. (In the Friday, May 22 NY Times, a full page titled, "The Whole World of High Finance Is Watching," carried a fluff story that's certain to be reprinted in investor's guides: "Experts Say Indonesia Can Boom, Long- Term.") For these reasons, too, U.S. editors may have intentionally downplayed the unpredictability of the week's events. Sadly, this coverage of Indonesia lends credibility to those who believe that America prefers repressive (but stable) dictatorships over free (but unpredictable) democracy.
Still the U.S. press ignores important new developments. In the days since the resignation of Suharto, the Clinton administration has waffled on whether the U.S. will push for a hunt for billions of dollars in assets believed recently smuggled out of the country by Suharto's family. This mirrors the don't- rock- the- boat position of Indonesia's new military strongman, Gen. Wiranto, who says an investigation would only risk more national unrest. "Let's leave it behind us," he told reporters last week. Few papers carried this outrageous statement.
And although the U.S. press is suggesting President Habibie may not stay in office long (elections are now scheduled for next year), it hasn't revealed the corruption and capitulation already apparent in the new government. Within hours of his appointment, Lt. Gen. Prabowo -- head of the KOPASSUS secret police and son-in-law of Suharto -- was fired. No tears shed there, except that it was believed that he was dismissed only because he was a military rival to the most powerful general. Nor did the American press seem to note that Habibie quickly surrendered control over communications and domestic issues to army officers. (May 29, 1998)
Albion Monitor Issue 47 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)
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