Misinformation, Ratna the hoaxer, and 1965

When the truth about her “injuries” was revealed, Ratna Sarumpaet boasted that she was the best creator of hoaxes.

 

Over the past week, two incidents have revealed what a serious problem hoaxes have become in Indonesian politics.

 

On 1 October, photos of the bruised and swollen face of Ratna Sarumpaet were circulated on social media. Through her Twitter account, Gerindra legislator Rachel Maryam confirmed that Ratna, a vocal critic of President Joko Widodo and a member of Prabowo Subianto’s presidential campaign team, had been attacked on 21 September in Bandung. Given the polarised nature of Indonesian politics, it was inevitable the case would have political ramifications.

 

Opposition member parties scrambled to Ratna’s defence. Campaign team deputy leader Nanik S Deyang described how Ratna was on the way home from a conference when she was dragged from her taxi, attacked by three unknown men and thrown to the roadside. Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) politician (and another campaign team deputy leader) Mardani Ali Sera said the nature of the attack was similar to tactics used by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

 

In one of the more absurd moments, Prabowo – a former general discharged from the military under a cloud of human rights violations – held a press conference in which he described the incident as a repressive act that violated human rights. He added that he suspected political motives were behind the attack.

 

But right from the outset the police were doubtful. On 3 October, they revealed that on 21 September Ratna was not in Bandung, as she claimed, but rather at a Jakarta cosmetic surgery hospital. Within a couple of days, the truth was out. Ratna admitted that she had fabricated the story and her injuries were a result of cosmetic surgery.

 

Furious that they had been lied to, members of Prabowo’s campaign team fired Ratna. In an interview following the revelation, Ratna, seemingly with no sense of remorse, said “It turns out that I am the best creator of hoaxes, scandalising a whole country.” (Kali ini saya pencipta hoaks terbaik, ternyata, menghebohkan sebuah negeri).

 

Putting aside Ratna’s bizarre sense of pride in the embarrassing spectacle she became, she is right that Indonesia has a long tradition of using hoaxes for political ends. Over recent years, Indonesia has seen the so-called “fake news factory” Saracen, the Obor Rakyat tabloid distributed to discredit Jokowi in 2014, and even the dubious quick counts promoted by Prabowo’s supporters in the media on the evening of the 2014 Presidential Election.

 

However, these recent hoaxes pale in comparison to the misinformation promoted for decades by the New Order in relation to the failed coup of the evening of 30 September 1965, and the violence that followed.

 

The New Order repeatedly promoted the line that female PKI members tortured six generals at Lubang Buaya and mutilated their genitals. Autopsy documents have since conclusively proved that this never occurred but the narrative lives on.

 

Part of the reason it has done so was the screening of the film “The Treachery of G30S/PKI” (Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI) on TVRI every 30 September, from 1984 to 1998. This spectacle became part of the collective memory of everyone who lived during this period, cementing the supposed actions of the PKI as the “chosen trauma” of the nation, helping to promote national unity and justify Soeharto’s oppressive 32-year rule.

 

Following the fall of Soeharto in 1998, Yunus Yosfiah, the information minister under President BJ Habibie, called for screenings to be stopped. He reportedly did so following pressure from retired Air Force officers, who felt they had been poorly represented in the film. Over time, the film has faced harsh criticism from historians, and even the film’s director, Arifin C Noer, for its inaccuracy. Journalists, academics, artists, filmmakers and survivors have all offered more complex, and more accurate, alternative narratives to the New Order version of history.

 

It is therefore hard to agree with tvOne Editor in Chief Karni Ilyas when he announced on 27 September that he had received the “good news” that tvOne planned to resurrect this New Order relic and screen it again on commercial television. In fact, tvOne had already screened the film in 2017, before the anti-communist hysteria that Indonesia typically sees before an election really got going.

 

What incentive is there for tvOne to show the film? It is likely that there are both editorial and commercial reasons.

 

When it launched in 2002, tvOne was initially known as Lativi and was owned by Golkar politician and labour minister from 1993-1998, Adbul Latief. Several years later, the station was bought by another Golkar politician, Aburizal Bakrie, and its name was changed to tvOne. Bakrie and Latief continue to serve on Golkar’s Board and Honour Council, respectively. Given it was Soeharto’s political vehicle during the New Order, it is not surprising that Golkar – and figures closely associated with it – would seek to promote the New Order line.

 

However, it is likely other factors are at play as well. Following the 2014 elections, the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) declared tvOne, along with MetroTV, RCTI, GlobalTV and MNC, to be “enemies of press freedom” for their partisan coverage of the 2014 race. In 2014, tvOne coverage strongly favoured Prabowo and was highly critical of Jokowi.

 

Given that prominent government critics, such as retired general Gatot Nurmantyo, retired general Kivlan Zen, and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), have been promoting public screenings of the G30S film over the past couple of years and have accused Jokowi of coming from a communist family, it is perhaps not surprising that tvOne would also want to screen anti-communist propaganda. But Golkar has now said it will back Jokowi in 2019, so why is tvOne continuing to favour the position of Prabowo supporters?

 

In a broader environment of anti-communist sentiment, another factor comes into play: commercial considerations. In 2017, tvOne sought to rehabilitate its reputation following its partisan coverage of the 2014 election, devoting more time to “softer” content, such as Turkish soap operas. This strategy failed and was abandoned after a few months, and tvOne returned to sensationalist news coverage.

 

When Gatot began promoting public screenings of the G30S film in 2017, tvOne seized on the controversy and screened the film – the first time it had been shown on public television since the fall of the New Order. Commercially, this was a wise decision. The film recorded a rating of 4.0 and a share of 28.1, meaning that it was watched by 4 per cent of the Indonesian population, or 28.1 per cent of the television audience for that night. These are high figures, given that it was screened at 9.30pm.

 

While the 2018 figures were down on last year, they were still impressive for a similar time slot of 9.00pm – the film recorded a rating of 2.4 and a share of 15.33. Perhaps this is the “good news” Karni Ilyas was referring to – good news for advertising sales and for the company, never mind that it required the promoting of misinformation and New Order propaganda that has been proven to be incorrect.

 

As tvOne uses a public frequency, it has a responsibility to provide fair and balanced information to the public. Unfortunately, the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI) has showed little interest in pursuing stations that broadcast incorrect information, including about the 1965 violence.

 

In fact, the KPI took no action against tvOne when it declared victory for Prabowo and Hatta Rajasa in 2014 on the basis of incorrect quick counts. TvOne received no penalties, and not even a warning, from KPI. In fact, KPI and the Ministry of Communication and Information even extended for 10 years the licences of the four stations named by AJI as enemies of press freedom – despite the fact that their content frequently violates journalistic principles and the spirit of impartiality embedded in the Broadcasting Law and Journalistic Code of Ethics.

 

Although the G30S film still attracts support, Ratna’s hoax had a much shorter shelf-life. Late last week, all the politicians who had rushed to her defence were suddenly backtracking and frantically seeking to erase any online evidence that they had supported her claims. Nanik S Deyang, for example, wrote “Given Ratna’s surprising admission, I am deleting my previous status in relation to her”. Democratic Party politician Ferdinand Hutahaean made a similar statement: “As a form of apology, I am deleting all my tweets in defence of Ratna Sarumpaet. Thank you”.

 

But this is not enough. Indonesia needs to take serious action against all the hoaxes and misinformation that are becoming a feature of national politics, because the consequences of many of them are so serious. People who are accused of being members of the communist party cannot simply erase the stigma and discrimination that goes along with it in the same way that politicians can delete their false or misleading tweets.