Media Incident in Tolikara A commotion broke up right in the middle of Eid celebration in Tolikara, Papua. Online media frames the accident as an inter-religious conflict.

On July 17, an unfortunate fire destroyed shops and a mosque in Tolikara, Papua. In the first week after the incident, the only facts that are clear is that two religious events—the mass Eid prayer and an international seminar hosted by a local church, Inijili (GIDI)—were taking place at the same time and proximity, and that several were injured and one was killed by police gunfire. The rest remains unclear due, in part, to conflicting online reports.

In one version of the story, GIDI was the aggressor. According to this version, GIDI distributed a letter two weeks prior, prohibiting muslims from celebrating Eid and wearing hijabs in the Tolikara area. After seeing the prohibition go largely ignored, GIDI followers attacked muslims during the mass Eid prayer and burned the mosque. In another version, GIDI was less culpable. GIDI, here, politely asked Eid prayer participants not to use a loud speaker out of consideration that the GIDI seminar was being held nearby. After the request went ignored, GIDI followers went to the mosque for peaceful discussion, were met by police gunfire, and then retaliated by starting a fire at nearby shops that spread to the mosque.

In a race to be the first report on the Tolikara conflict, several online media published stories of highly questionable quality. and published reports within the first hour of the conflict, but without substantial sources or material information. Kompas released an article  based on a sole local police department source, while MetroTVNews did not cite any sources. Furthermore, the lack of material information in the stories fueled rampant speculation by readers. At this point, we still did not know what was burnt, whether the fire was accidental or intentional, whether GIDI followers targeted the mosque, and whether GIDI was the aggressor.

In the early days of reporting, online media relied on second hand sources, mostly government officials located in Jakarta, commenting on a event happening in a remote area over 3,500 kilometers away. While unintentional, this gives the public the impression that the media is merely acting as the government’s spokesperson and creates an inherent distrust between the public and the media.

One of the major confusion in the event is surrounding a document purportedly released by GIDI. This document, a handbill signed in GIDI stamps, is regarded as proof that the incident was a product of religious hatred. The document is widely circulating on the social media before online media pick it up as news—without first authenticating it. While the head of the National Police Department indicated that GIDI admitting writing the Eid prayer prohibition letter, the Coordinating Minister of Politics and Security denied that assertion.

Marthen Jingga and Nayus Wenda, two names who allegedly authored the documents, are interviewed four days later. They confirmed that the document exists, but is already revised. In the revised version, there is no prohibition of Eid prayer. Nevertheless, the prayer is restricted to the mosque—the traditional prayer is held in an open field—and the use of loudspeakers are prohibited. Yet, the unrevised document remains circulating in the social media.

In addition, a majority of coverage focused on the fire, while failing to give appropriate weight to the shooting that left twelve injured and one dead.  Kompas, for example, gave little thought on the Army official Fuad Basya statement that, “if it’s the Police’s bullet, then it’s only natural. The Police have guns. The same thing goes to the Army. It’s only natural, if they reply an attack with shooting”. The Police and The Army officials are only source for the story.

There are no contradicting view. No further critical interrogation on the statement. This shooting brings forth the memory of Paniai tragedy eight months prior, in which the Army shooting killed 4 Papuans and left 17 other victims injured. Tolikara incident is a good chance to unwrap atrocities against humanity in Papua, yet the media take no stance on this. Instead, online media dangerously painted the story as simply a case of arson targeting muslims. This limits the issue and prevents the public from understanding the reasons for current GIDI/muslim conflict should further conflict arise in the future.

Some media spinned this inter-religious conflict issue further in blatantly provocative pieces. Taking the lead in this regard, published Anti-Syi’ah Alliance’s accusations that GIDI had ties with Israel’s Zionist movement. In another story, RepublikaOnline quoted a spokesperson for Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia who stated that the Tolikara incident was in fact a product of hatred toward muslims—and not just from GIDI followers, but from all Papuan.

RepublikaOnline’s third article explores the view of Indonesia’s Ulama Assembly (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI) official, Anwar Abbas, and put a dramatic twist in the article by modifying one of Abbas’ statement.  His actual statement, as written in the article, is that “Tolikara arsonist does not deserve to stay in Indonesia”. RepublikaOnline replaced the word “stay” with “live” and use it as the article’s headline. This change opens up a possible new meaning to his statement that, in Indonesia, Tolikara arsonist does not deserve to live.  These stories are not journalism. These are violent propaganda.

In addition to drawing in more readership, publishing inflammatory pieces serves media organizations with an opportunity to fill additional column space and air time by putting out these fires. After helping shape the public’s opinion that the Tolikara incident was a religious conflict, these same news organizations take a turn to promote religious leaders making speeches of peace and tolerance.

Nevertheless, the sparks are already ignited.  Violent and intimidating measures toward GIDI and other christian churches, in response to the incident, are already taken. Some are done in secrecy by anonymous group of people, others by overt “mujahideen” faction. These efforts are still manageble by local police, and not necessarily leads to greater conflict, but cautiousness is a good thing. Intolerance is a subject to be viewed critically by journalism, but mishandling the issue could lead to the spread of intolerance, instead of stopping it. In any case, journalism requires accuracy and caution. Two qualities hardly observable in Tolikara’s reporting. []

REMOTIVI is an Indonesian-based centre of media and communication studies. Its main work involves research, advocation, and publication on media and communication issues. Formed in Jakarta 2010, Remotivi is initiated by independent citizens, in response to over-commercialized post-authoritarian media industry practices at the expense of its public responsibility.