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Sinetron and soap boxes

Sinetron and soap boxes
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Elisabeth Kramer

Media headlines targeting the war on corruption
Elisabeth Kramer

On 5 November 2011, the Jakarta Post ran a small, unassuming editorial titled ‘Defeat in the war on graft’. The editorial outlined the public disappointment at the failure of regional anti-corruption courts to convict a number of people accused of corruption, in stark contrast to the Jakarta based anti-corruption court which had a 100 per cent conviction rate. It lamented this failure, which it said was clear evidence that the government was losing the war against corruption – a war that, it claimed, is vital to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s ongoing legitimacy.

Buried among many other articles, the editorial was short and not particularly significant. But it provides an excellent example of the way in which corruption and efforts to combat it are portrayed by the Indonesian media. Rather than recognising corruption as a deeply embedded issue that has historical, political, and even cultural roots, it is often painted simplistically as the battlefield in a war of ‘good vs. evil’. The keen media interest in corruption often takes the form of sensationalised articles about individuals, continuing an historical trend in Indonesia’s debate surrounding corruption in the form of a never-ending search for heroes and villains.

The heroes in the war against corruption are portrayed as self-sacrificing individuals, driven by conviction and commitment to the nation. With its roots in the independence movement, the idea is based on the notion that civil servants and politicians should take positions because of their commitment to Indonesia, not for personal enrichment. In stark contrast to the reality of how the state and bureaucracy function, there continues to be an expectation, at least in the media, that politicians and bureaucrats work for the good of the people.

Those who fail to meet such standards of behaviour are clearly the enemy. The media demonises these villains to the extreme, damning them as weak, morally corrupt individuals who operate outside the law to enrich themselves and those close to them. Their personal lives and excesses are sensationalised and splashed across the front pages of the newspapers. Indonesians everywhere can rattle off the names of the latest corruptors and their crimes. The likes of Gayus Tambunan, Nunun Nurbeati and Muhammad Nazaruddin are all household names. Their extravagant spending habits have made the headlines, drawing further attention to their greed and predatory behaviour. Their intrigues are akin to those of a soap opera, with storylines of bribery, midnight flights to Singapore, extradition and even amnesia. These stories draw attention away from the patterns and the institutional factors that have underpinned corruption in Indonesia since long before any of the current crop of villains appeared on the stage.

‘Heroes’ at the KPK

Established in 2003, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has been a major actor in the anti-corruption soap opera. The organisation as a whole has been painted as the hope of the nation, the government’s strong arm, charged with investigating and catching the bad guys. The introduction of the KPK itself was hoped to intimidate politicians and bureaucrats into improving their behaviour. However, as the years progressed the KPK itself became the backdrop for some of the most sensational media stories of the decade. The KPK’s first chairman, Antasari Anzar, became embroiled in a sordid plot of infidelity, murder and blackmail. In February 2010, despite an unconvincing prosecution, he was sentenced to 18 years in jailed for the assassination of his lover’s husband. In another scandal, two KPK commissioners, Bibit and Chandra, were arrested in 2009 for abusing their powers in case that turned out to be an elaborate plot to frame them. These spectacles, rather than undermine the KPK in the eyes of the people, has given it a ‘revered underdog’ status. The Indonesian public appear to be gunning for the KPK, as numerous demonstrations and acts of support have shown. The recent election of a new Chief Commissioner has generated renewed interest and speculation over the KPK’s future fighting the good fight.

On 2 December 2011 a new head of KPK was finally appointed. Abraham Samad, a lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner from Makassar, was elected by an overwhelming majority, attaining 43 out of 56 votes and besting eight other contenders for the high-profile position. Within hours the appointment dominated the print, online and television media. Several television channels ran panel discussions on what Abraham Samad’s appointment would mean. The prominent newspaper Kompas even created a purpose-specific webpage dedicated to issues relating to the imminent challenges he faces. According to journalists, all hope for the government’s anti-corruption efforts rests in Samad’s ability to live up to his promises and position, and the media was positioning itself to scrutinise his every move. Although Abraham Samad was new on the scene, within hours his potential as a ‘hero’ was a matter for debate in the media.

Hopeful citizens look forward to Samad’s ability to tackle the ongoing cases of graft such as the Bank Century case, the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games scandal and the investigation and prosecution of the ‘budget mafia’ in the People’s House of Representatives (DPR). More cynical observers speculate that Samad’s appointment is a political compromise. According to some, Samad – a relatively unknown lawyer most famous for his links to the Islamic group the Committee to Uphold Islamic Sharia (KPSI) – was selected because he would be ‘easier to tame’ than other candidates. Samad, in turn, promised that he would resign after a year if he is unable to make headway on key corruption cases and that he would even ‘hang his own brother’ if he discovered he had been engaged in corruption.

Always the ‘other’

While it is generally acknowledged that corruption is common, there is much less emphasis in the media on these crimes as part of a broader web of illegal practices. In December 2011, for example, a news story broke highlighting the fact that the number of young civil servants involved in corruption remained high. According to the story this was disappointing since generational change is held as one of the primary hopes for combating corruption in Indonesia.

Seputar Indonesia ran the story as a full-page cover article, in which portraits of major ‘villains’ like Gayus Tambuanan and Nazaruddin, and a summary of their crimes, sat alongside the article. But who were the heroes? Seputar Indonesia resorted to bringing back the dead – comparing today’s young civil servants, with their lack of integrity and nationalism, to Bung Karno and Bung Hatta, the valiant heroes of the Republic.

The othering of these corrupt young civil servants fits neatly within the media’s search for villains in the war on corruption. They are said to have worked alone, and not for their superiors, with some describing them as ‘nakal’ (naughty or wicked). Instead of acknowledging the ubiquity of corruption, journalists branded these young civil servants as exceptions to the rule.

Manipulating the discourse

The discourse of corruption as a battle against evil, greedy public figures also creates space for more subtle manipulations. The powerful use the ‘good versus evil’ dichotomy to frame their position in terms of their commitment to what is ‘good’, pitting themselves against the villains. Whenever a new scandals breaks, politicians, judges and high-profile public servants are quick to condemn the perpetrators, recognising that the faster and harsher their condemnation, the more likely it is to receive media attention.

In November 2011, for example, Mahfud MD, the chief of Indonesia’s Constitutional Court, presented a novel solution to the corruption problem, proposed the establishment of a special zoo for corruptors, in which those convicted of corruption were placed on display for all to see, with a large placard outlining their crimes. His justification for this radical suggestion was that ‘those involved in corruption have the heart of animals, so let them be put on display in a zoo’. The suggestion was reported as a serious option.

Mahfud was again quoted in several media publications following the appointment of Abraham Samad as new head of the KPK. He issued a warning to Samad that he must remain independent and dare to take on the tough corruption cases because he has the hopes of the people riding on his success.

Regardless of the motivations for his statements, Mahfud is playing the game well. Whether he truly believes a zoo to be viable option for punishment is beside the point. He has successfully positioned himself firmly on the side of ‘good’ in the debate, a hardliner willing to do what it takes to eradicate corruption. His media politicking – whatever its stated purpose – appears to be doing the trick. Other politicians looking to capitalise on the anti-corruption discourse would do well to look to him for tips on how they too can turn an anti-corruption soap box into a weapon in their arsenal for seeking media attention and portraying themselves as a ‘hero’ in the public eye.

Elisabeth Kramer (ekra2068@sydney.edu.au) is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, where she is researching the anti-corruption movement in Indonesia.


Inside Indonesia 108: Apr-June 2012

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