Years of Living Dangerously – Media Critics

Wall painting, saying "murderer" in ...
"Pembunuh", tulisan di sebuah dinding di Tutuala, Timor Leste

“Years of Living Dangerously: As the slaughter continues in East Timor, chilling questions about the future of Indonesia remain unanswered.” – by Hamish McDonald and Louise Williams report. (News Review, The Sydney Morning Herald, September 11, 1999, pp. 1,4).

Note: the article below was written in the year 2000, for academic assignment at UTS, Australia. – SB.

As Indonesia is facing a critical presidential election in November, the East Timor agony remains a crucial major issue which should be restored immediately by the Indonesian government.

In the article both McDonald and Williams argue that for Indonesia East Timor may means crystallisation of a dangerous political power struggle between the military (plus its allies in the political elite) and the democratic movement seeking to build civilian institutions and bring accountability to a political and economic system.

The article begins with a comparison between the bloodbath in ET with Jews ethnic cleansing in Warsaw (in World War 2). “ Remember what the bloodbath in East Timor involves: the deportation of perhaps a quarter of the population; a direct attack on the Catholic Church … the murder of Catholic priests and nuns believed to be on a ‘death list’ of Jakarta’s political opponents; ….,” it said (p.1, para 2).

Furthermore, interestingly both writers analyze Indonesian contemporary situation, its political history and competition between civilian and military powers. Then they connect the Timor tragedy with those of similar imminent threats in the restive provinces of Aceh, Irian Jaya and Ambon. Enriched with stories about the 2-year-old democratic movements in the country, the story provides a clearer picture of what is really happening in Indonesia at large. The writers use relatively comprehensive historical documents for their 44  paragraphs features. They also attempt to provide sufficient information by quoting Indonesian Catholic newspaper Kompas and its alliance The Jakarta Post daily.

However, the choice of sources is not appropriate enough to make a more objective article. As Carey urges, sources are normally used by journalists to ‘objectify’ what they (the journalists) already known.[1] Yet, journalists pretty much keep their own counsel on rational motives. Instead of quoting other ‘pro-Indonesian’ reputable newspapers – thus, one of controllable sources — such as the pro-Habibie Republika daily or more ‘neutral’ paper Media Indonesia which, in turn, will give more objective story but brings a threat of deviating their motives, the writers prefer to use those of more pro-Catholic media such as Kompas and The Jakarta Post dailies.

The choice of sources is more inappropriate when the article only mentions General Wiranto and the ‘bad guys’ pro-Indonesian militia in various paragraphs without quoting them. Even it is already using relatively credible sources such as Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, Islamic leader Abdurrahman Wahid and President Habibie’s adviser Mrs Dewi Anwar, but it fails to have an interview with the militia and or any of the Indonesian Generals.

Sources are used to cite the facts of the matter without further investigation, and to give credibility to what the reporter visualises.[2] In this case, both writers want to give credibility for their view on Indonesia’s elites stand towards the situation. And by doing so, both writers perhaps do not have any further obligation to stretch out their investigation to defend their opinion.

For quite a long period of time The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) has shown deep interest on Indonesia’s political events. About a decade ago SMH placed the then-expelled (by Indonesian President Soeharto) David Jenkins as its correspondent in Jakarta. Jenkins, along with Indonesianists like McDonald and Williams and their colleagues Lindsay Murdoch (in Jakarta) and John Martinkus (in East Timor) give the organisation more reliable professionals to portray any political event in the country. Therefore, it should be relatively easy for SMH to understand who are the ‘players’ in the Indonesian political and military struggles. In this case, supposedly General Wiranto is unreachable it is still relatively easier to have an interview with other key persons such as General Rudini or, even better, General Benny Moerdani who was one of the ‘engineers’ for the 1975  East Timor ‘invasion’.

Thus, to be able in creating more credible story the writers should also further their investigation by asking other sources to explain the behaviour that has been designated as deviant within prevailing cultural criteria of rational acceptability.

            Since sources are also used to offer tertiary understanding, addressing the question ‘What is it like to be involved?’, we could imagine how good it is to read opinions made by those Generals or the militia people. But it is understood if the writers do not enrich their sources by those of so called ‘bad guys’, since, as Ericson mentioned, only some sources have warrant to address social control (in our case: political control), and among these some are warranted than others.  It is also understood if they avoid certain sources, because it is evident that there are many strings attached to being a journalist in a news organisation whose interests are ultimately bound at the elite level to those source organisations being reported on.[3]

            But of course by doing this the writers risk to be bias in their article. Thus, they could be trapped as being not objective. Objectivity, as practiced by journalists, is an eminently practical – and apparently highly successful – way of dealing with the complex needs of journalists, news organisations and audiences. Even such as the Timor tragedy can be safely presented as a series of facts that require no explanation of their political significance. By presenting the tragedy as a series of facts, SMH is protected in at least two ways.[4]

The first and most obvious way is that since journalists need to rely on sources to provide them with the facts about events, sources and not journalists are responsible for the accuracy of the facts. To a limited degree, this helps to insulate both journalists and their news organisations from charges of bias and inaccurate reporting.[5] The second advantage objectivity has for news organisations: it helps to secure their monopoly position in the market place. By reporting the news objectively, reader loyalty to a newspaper is not a function of the ideology of that newspaper. It is rather based on the thoroughness of the news coverage, subscription costs, delivery services or some other tangible factors that a newspaper can control.

Journalists are non-ideological in the sense that they do not report the news according to an ideological perspective that is consciously shared by the members of the profession. Therefore, the natural place to find newsworthy sources will be in the power structure of society because journalists see the current politico-economic system as a naturally occurring state of affairs.[6] News sources, then, are drawn from the existing power structure; therefore news tends to support the status quo. Or, as Herman and Chomsky theorise “self-censorship resulting from easy availability of information from dominant sources results in the US media being used as a vehicle for state propaganda.” [7] It is unclear that the Herald is supporting the status quo of, say, Australian government. But apparently it does not oppose Australian government stand towards Indonesian military involvement in East Timor.

Some scholars have suggested that the personal predilections of reporters towards ‘the issue involved in the group’s activities’ may influence their contacts with and stories about their sources (Goldenberg,1975, quoted inBlumler and Gurevitch).[8] Another line of explanation attributes the greater ability of certain sources to attract favourable coverage to the more powerful controls and sanctions which they can exert – for example, the denial of information, advertising and other ‘goods’ valued by news organisation (Tunstall,1971, quoted in Blumler and Gurevitch).[9]

News people gather information in three ways: by interviewing, by observing and by using documents including news wire services. In this case, if still the writers can not interview the ex-generals or the militia, at least they can strive more to use documents which quote relevant comments from those key players. The article, in fact, cites Indonesian government news wire Antara. It says,“Couple this with the rising emphasis in the official media, like the Antara newsagency, on the complaints by the failed pro-integration cause that UN mission was biased in its conduct of the ballot, complaints used by Wiranto and others to justify militia rampage.”

This very important citation is used at least for two reasons. First, to avoid more charges of bias because it provides picture from ‘the other side of the coin’. Secondly, it is used to insulate both journalists and their news organisations from charges of inaccurate reporting. Yet, we still can argue that it is far less than they should have done. Since the allegation (that the UN was biased in its conduct of the ballot) could be the only factor which caused the bloodbath, the article should investigate more, and ask the UN whether the ballot was conducted freely and fairly.

Here we have to ask at least two questions: is it true that UN mission was biased, and is it true that Wiranto and others (who are the ‘others’?) complained about this and then use it to justify the rampage (when and how Wiranto made the complaint?) If it is a true, than it should be revealed more explicitly. We want to know how things stand in the world, in this case, how things stand in the Indonesia and East Timor distress. We need to know what actually happens and why.

As a crucial base of objective reporting, journalists should tell the truth or, even better, the whole truth. In regards to this, the article should lead us to answer questions such as, “why did the militia rampaged, how and why did the UN biased its ballot conduct?”. As Lichtenberg argues, our most fundamental interest in objectivity is an interest in truth. We want to know things stand in the world, or what happen, and why.[10] In this sense, to claim that a particular piece of journalism is not objective is to claim that is fails to provide the truth or the whole truth. It is paramount in the case of the East Timor ballot that the journalists should strive uncovering such allegation.

In telling the truth, journalists often legitimate their news story by certain plot such as selecting certain words in their phrases or sentences. In the article, at least we can review two sample of this scheme. First, when it mentions that, “The dangers, of course, are that the bloody tactics used in East Timor will infect the whole country.” (p. 36, column 8, para 4)

Words like of course, obviously, can legitimate your opinion as a ’truth’.[11] But is it certain (is it true) that the bloody tactics will really infect the whole country. Is not it rather the tactics will hold the country in union, because some one might argue that people from other province will be afraid to attempt another liberation and stay in unity with the country?. Different stance adverbs highlight different features of a speaker’s perspective or attitude. Adverbs such as unfortunately, importantly, happily, and so forth express the speaker’s affect toward or evaluative judgment of a claim. In contrast, adverbs such as certainly (in our case: the word of course), obviously, and clearly express the speaker’s assessment of the truth value or reliability of a claim.

The same thing happens with the use of word ‘believed’ in the phrase,” ..a direct attack on the Catholic Church … the murder of Catholic priests and nuns believed to be on a ‘death list’ of Jakarta’s political opponents; ….,” (p.1, para 2). Although it is unclear who believe and who’s believe is it (that there is a death list), and although it is a verb rather than an adverb, the meaning of word believed certainly guides the readers to a reliability of a claim.

By using certain tactics like this word selection, journalists could easily cope with nonverifiable facts. Presumably the death list is a fact, it is almost impossible for the journalists to prove it. (And even worse if it is not a fact). But, as Tuchman argues, newsworkers must also cope with nonverifiable facts, facts that could be verified in theory but not in practice – and certainly not in time for deadlines.[12] Dealing with this problem in the approved professional manner, journalists explicitly recognise the mutual embeddedness of fact and source, which in the case of this article it is not clear whether there is really a “death list” to kill priests and nuns.

The same thing happens when the article mentions about confidential papers leaked from militia. It says, “Before the vote, papers leaked from the militia set out clear plans for a ‘scorched earth’ policy if they lost the vote. Militia leaders confidently threatened to turn the territory into a ‘sea of fire’.” (p. 36, column 8, para 1) This allegation pose the writers to a couple of challenges in order not to be biased. First, they should reveal is it true that the militia wrote the papers? Because, “if the truth did not prevail, what prevailed would at least be seen as the truth.”[13]  If it is true that the militia wrote the paper, than it should be verified. Secondly, they should elaborate more, perhaps by interviewing (and confirm to) the militia and ask who write the paper, when, and why?

But this is another kind of ‘nonverifiable facts’. Again, dealing with tight deadline it is almost impossible for the writers to verify such thing in day to day practice. Rather, they explicitly recognise the mutual embeddedness of fact and source, which in the case of this article it is not clear (who the source of the leaking papers is). For rather than recognise a nonverifiable statement as fact, they blend fact and source. In the course of accomplishing this copresentation, newsworkers create and control controversies as news.[14]

This is apparently not an unusual practice in the western media. As Pilger argues the ‘free’ press is not really free at all because it practices ‘censorship by exclusion’, by leaving out news that is too complicated or too unpalatable to minds with short attention spans in its main media markets in the West.[15] Dixit argues that it is unnatural if news media (including SMH in our case) were not primarily preoccupied with their own societies, economies and political systems, “and when they cover international events it would be very surprising if they suddenly do not reflect the self-generated security preoccupations of their governments.”[16]

Soloski says that the selection of news events and news sources flows ‘naturally’ from news professionalism. In addition, news judgment requires that journalists share assumptions about what is normal in society, since an event’s newsworthiness is related to its departure from what is considered to be normal.[17] In the case of the article, it is normal value for Australian society that the pro-Indonesian militia is the evil in the East Timor tragedy, therefore they should be punished. By concentrating on the deviant, the odd and the unusual, journalists implicitly support the norms and values of society. Like fables, news stories contain hidden morals, Soloski argues.[18]

It is not the only time that the SMH publishes biased articles and news stories. In this article, it mentions numbers of Christian victims in Timor, but does not tell numbers of Muslim victims killed by the same military in other riots and or ‘religious war’. In Jakarta, for instance, the military killed more than 1,500 civilians inside and around mosque in 1984, while in Aceh, since decades thousands Muslim civilians slaughtered, and about 100,000 people fled their home since May 1999, and other thousands of Muslim killed in Ambon since January 1999 which in turn produced more than 53,000 Muslim refugees.

In the other article, last March, the SMH wrote about clashes in Timor and Ambon. It clearly specified the number of Christian victims, but was unclear in identifying how many Muslim died in both areas. The SMH only said that, (during the largest ever Muslim rally in Jakarta, March 1999) some Muslim groups were calling for a holy war against Christians, “who they accused running a vendetta against Muslim”.  Then, when the SMH told the readers that more than 200 people have been killed in two months in Ambon, it did not say who they were.[19]. It failed to mention that more than 1,000 Muslim people killed in the Ambon riots which made millions of other Muslims in other cities angry.

Then, it also obvious that in some of its news stories the SMH used more ‘posh-words’ in some way and ‘tabloidese’ words in the other way in describing different situations experienced by the Muslim and the Christians. When referring to the Muslim migrants who left Timor, for instance, the SMH  chose words like amid fears of violence from the Christian Timorese (posh-words), but when referring to the (Christian) Timorese it used sentences like Timorese who have suffered 23 years of brutal repression which are considered as tabloidese words.[20]

Yet, as Soloski emphasised earlier, it is probably ‘normal’ for these media to present different stories in various ways. Life, people say, can be seen through many different windows. Some clearer than others.  However, this unfair attitude confirms two things. First, that it is parallel with what have been long conventional ‘wisdom’ that the mainstream media have a ‘liberal bias’.  Then, it is similar with what expressed by John Pilger when he wondered if Australian ‘theoretically free press’ was not mortally wounded.  When Australian press wrote about Vietnam (another Indonesia’s neighbor), it was for many years reported with bogus objectivity,”that is, from the acceptable bias of ‘our side’,” said Pilger. [21]



[1] Carey,J. “The Dark Continent of American Journalism.” James Carey: A Critical Reader, Eds. Stryker Munson, E. and Warren, Catherine A. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London, first published in 1986, p.181.

[2] Ericson, R.V., Baranek, P.M.,and Chan, J.B.L.”Negotiating the News” and Negotiating Control.” Negotiating the News, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, p.4.

[3] Ericson, Negotiating the News.

[4] John Soloski, News reporting and professionalism: some constraints on the reporting of the news, in Media Culture and Society, SAGE, Vol.11,1989.


[5]Soloski, News reporting and professionalism.

[6]Soloski, News reporting and professionalism

[7]Herman and Chomsky (1998, p.305), quoted in Meadows,M. “Journalism as a Cultural Resource.” Journalism Theory and Practice, Ed. Breen,M., Macleay Press, 1998. p.70

[8] Blumler, J.G. and Gurevitch,M. “The Orientation of Journalists to social and political institutions”. The Crisis of Public Communication, Routledge, London and News York, 1995, p.46-47. 


[9] Blumler, J.G. and Gurevitch,M. “The Orientation of Journalists to social and political institutions”.  

[10] Judith Lichtenberg, In Defence of Objectivity Revisited, p.227-228.


[11] Lisbeth Lipary, Journalistic Authority: Textual Strategies of Legitimation, J&MC Quarterly Vol. 73, No.4, 1996, p.824.

[12] Tuchman.G, “The Web of Facticity”. Making News, 1978, p.89-90.


[13] Morgan, F. “What is Journalism?” Journalism Theory and Practice, Ed. Breen,M. Macleay Press, 1998, p.62.

[14] Tuchman.G, “The Web of Facticity.”


[15] Pilger as quoted by Dixit,K. “Who, What, When, Where, Now What?” Dateline earth journalism as if the planet mattered, Inter Press Service, 1997, p.156.


[16] Dixit,K. “Who, What, When, Where, Now What.?”

[17] Soloski, News reporting and professionalism.


[18] Soloski, News reporting and professionalism.


[19] Sydney Morning Herald, March 8, 1999, p.13.

[20] SMH, March 8, 1999. Col.1.

[21] John Pilger, Stand up and be counted, address to the Melbourne Press Club at the 1981 Journalist of the Year presentation.

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