In the months following the 12 October 2002 Bali bombings, Indonesia was awash with conspiracy theories regarding the identity of the perpetrators and the methods used to blow up the two nightclubs. Most of these theories attributed blame for the attacks to foreigners of one sort or another. The most popular accounts claimed that the US government masterminded the attacks and provided the necessary high explosive materials and bomb-making expertise. A succession of media polls in late October and November showed a majority of respondents thought the US was behind the bombings and one 'Detikcom' survey revealed 70 per cent blamed the CIA (see box). Other theories suggested Mossad, MI-6 or one of Australia's intelligence agencies was involved, and several asserted that the bombings were the work of foreign al-Qaeda operatives.
With the exception of a number of allegations that the Indonesian armed forces or intelligence services might have been complicit, nearly all the conspiracy theories downplayed or denied the involvement of Indonesians, particularly in planning the attack and assembling the bombs. It was argued that Indonesian extremist groups lacked both the ability to organise such a sophisticated operation and the expertise to put together bombs as powerful as that which destroyed the Sari Club. Such theories remained popular even after the police arrested a string of key suspects and began releasing detailed information regarding the terrorist activities of Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) members.
This preoccupation with conspiracy theories, often referred to as conspiracism, is not unique to Indonesia. There is a substantial scholarly literature recording the phenomenon at many points in history and in many parts of the world. Conspiracism is especially common in deprived, traumatised or repressed communities where reliable information is scarce, intra-communal mistrust is high and the state is given to arbitrary abuse of its citizens.
In the Indonesian case, seldom has conspiracism been so pervasive as in the aftermath of Bali bombings. This would seem to reflect a sense that the world is now more hostile towards Indonesia and that Western nations and foreign corporations are seeking to exploit the country's economic and political problems for their own ends. Many Indonesians cite the 1997 financial crisis and East Timor's independence as evidence of the West's role in undermining national integrity. There is also a widespread view that separatist movements in West Papua and Maluku receive Western support.
Indonesian conspiracy theorists therefore tended to see the attacks in Bali as a continuation, if not culmination, of a broader US project of domination. Many believe that the US carried out or sanctioned the attacks in order to discredit and weaken Indonesia as well as reinforce perceptions of Islam as a violent religion. The US could thus step up pressure on the Megawati government to crack down on Islamists and support the Bush administration's proposed war against Iraq.
Part of the reason for the popularity of the conspiracy theories following the Bali bombing was the extent of press coverage given to them. Predictably, the more strident sections of the Islamist press such as Sabili, Media Dakwah and Jurnal Islam gave prominence to alleged international plots.
The case of Republika
Perhaps less expected was the role of Republika, the leading 'Islamic' daily, in promoting conspiracy theories about the Bali bombing. For the past decade, Republika has claimed to represent the quality end of the Islamic press with high standards of reporting, analysis and presentation. But in fact, of all the major dailies, Republika's coverage was the most journalistically questionable and served to fan conspiracy theories relating to the bombing.
In late October and early November, a number of conspiracy theories were given prominence in Republika. The first was that the Australian government may have played a role in the bombing and was engaged in a cover-up. It reported that a 'key eyewitness' to the Paddy's Bar bombing, Kadek Alit Margarini, had been 'forcibly' evacuated by Australian officials without the approval of her family and Indonesian doctors and had died in an Australian hospital on 19 October. She was cremated shortly afterwards, without the family's permission and without an autopsy.
The paper said various aspects of the Kadek case were suspicious. It reported staff at Sanglah Hospital in Denpasar as saying that the patient was stable prior to evacuation, but that Australian doctors had insisted she be flown to Perth. A later story quoted an unnamed Indonesian doctor as being shocked by news of her death, saying that her condition had not been that serious. Furthermore, it quoted an Indonesian forensic expert as asking why there had been no autopsy prior to cremation. 'If the victim was cremated immediately, then the question arises - what was there to hide?' (25 October and 15 November 2002). Although not stated explicitly, the articles insinuated that Australian officials had irresponsibly expatriated Kadek, and possibly played a hand in her demise, in order to prevent her from telling what she had seen.
Republika also reported that the corpses of four Australian soldiers had mysteriously 'disappeared' from the bombsite without ever being registered with the Sanglah Hospital morgue. Furthermore, it reported that nurses handling corpses had been told by the hospital not to discuss the issue. An unnamed forensics expert said that the bodies may have disappeared because they were 'important material evidence' or were 'closely connected to the Bali bombing case'. The article went on to mention that several US and Australian navy ships had docked in Balinese ports in the months preceding the bombing. It said that one of the Australian vessels, the 'logistics' ship Westralia, made an 'unofficial visit' (12 November 2002). No direct connection was drawn between the 'missing corpses' and the naval visits, but the placement of the stories seemed designed to suggest to the reader that the soldiers may have entered Bali on one of the ships.
In its search for far-fetched accounts of the bombing, Republika turned up the Western Australia-based Joe Vialls, whom it generously described as a 'private investigator' and 'explosives and intelligence analyst'. Vialls might be more accurately labelled an extreme right-wing professional conspiracy theorist. His website (www.geocities.com/vialls/) is filled with virulently anti-Semitic and anti-US views. For example, he asserts that the Bali bombing, the Port Arthur massacre and the death of Princess Diana were all sinister international plots and that Australia had become a 'test bed' for the 'New World Order'.
Republika quoted Vialls as saying that the Bali bomb had actually been a micro-thermonuclear device, not conventional explosive as had been asserted by the Indonesian and international investigators. (This theory seems to have first appeared on the website of the conservative US radio talk program, the Hal Turner Show in mid-October). He also claimed that the Australian government had tried to cover up evidence supporting this finding by deleting the eyewitness account of an army captain on the Australian army's official website and had also ordered raids against Indonesians suspected of JI involvement in order to divert public attention away from the issue. He furthermore asserted that the US, Israeli and Australian governments pressured the investigators to blame Muslims for the bombing (10 and 13 November 2002). Vialls was reported as an expert commentator and no attempt was made to test the plausibility of his theories.
Perhaps the most surreal theory carried in Republika was that CIA, Mossad, MI-6 and Asio agents had descended on Bali before and after the bombing because they had heard there was going to be 'war' between 'narcotics networks'. These agencies 'wanted to use (menumpangi - lit., ride on) the war for their own objectives'. The rival intelligence services were then said to have got involved in a 'battle' which had left 20 Australian agents dead. The source for this story was 'intelligence sources' (12 November 2002). No supporting evidence was presented in the article and there was no indication of any attempt to corroborate the story.
At one level, Republika's peddling of conspiracy theories regarding the Bali bombings represents a lamentable failure to uphold journalistic standards, particularly in a paper that aspires to be a journal of record. The most improbable of explanations were routinely passed off as worthy of serious consideration. Moreover, insinuation and implication took the place of rigorous investigation and analysis. In effect, Republika alluded to sinister covert forces having responsibility for the Bali attacks and left the rest to its readers' imaginations.
Republika's lapse in standards might easily be dismissed as nothing more than journalists surrendering to their prejudices. But as scholars of conspiracism have shown, conspiracy theories can have a profound impact on public perceptions and actions. In particular, it can distort public debate, inclining people to believe what is dubious or untrue. In Indonesia, as in many other countries, conspiracy theories have in the past fuelled community conflict, provoked mass protests and led to ill-advised government decisions. The Bali bombings and subsequent revelations about Indonesia-based terrorism raise important issues that require informed and thoughtful responses. Republikaohas served its readers poorly by focussing on fanciful conspiracy theories rather than substantive reporting.
Dr Greg Fealy (email@example.com) is a research fellow and lecturer in Indonesian politics at The Australian National University. He is currently teaching at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.