Journalists strike after West Java’s most famous newspaper ‘withdraws’ poem.
Hawe Setiawan cannot imagine life without the Bandung daily Pikiran Rakyat (PR), the premier regional newspaper in West Java. As a native of the Sundanese district of Subang, Hawe grew up regarding PR as a vital source of information about contemporary life. Since moving to Bandung almost 20 years ago, he has been a regular contributor as a (non-staff) writer, focusing especially on art and culture.
Pikiran Rakyat can be found at www.pikiran-rakyat.com/
Recent events, however, have strained his relationship with PR. Along with a number of his colleagues, Hawe has not submitted any writing to the newspaper since August 2007.
The events leading to this ‘strike’ began on 4 August 2007, when PR published a poem in its culture supplement entitled ‘Malaikat’ (Angel), by Saeful Badar. The poem drew an angry response from a coalition of groups claiming to represent the interests of Indonesia’s Islamic community. They insisted the poem be withdrawn, that the editor be sacked, and that the poet be blacklisted. This initial protest was not published in the paper, although a statement of objections along similar lines from the West Java branch of the DDII (Indonesian Council for Islamic Proselytising) was published on 7 August.
‘It never happened’
On 6 August, two days after the poem appeared, the newspaper published a declaration on its front page apologising to anybody who was offended by it. It stated it was withdrawing the poem, and that the newspaper considered the publication of the poem ‘to have never happened’. The offending poem was withdrawn from the online edition and the editor of the culture supplement was reassigned.
On 16 August 2007, PR published a joint declaration signed by 21 cultural and civil society groups, most of them based in Bandung and Tasikmalaya. One of those groups was the ‘Cupumanik Community’. Hawe is the editor of Cupumanik, a Sundanese language magazine focusing on the culture and history of West Java. The declaration criticised the newspaper’s actions as destructive of freedom of expression. It warned that intolerance and absolutist interpretations of literature were a form of symbolic violence capable of opening the door to physical violence.
The objections should have been published in the letters to the editor section, or as a feature article structured to cover both sides of the polemic.
Along with a number of his colleagues, Hawe was alarmed at the newspaper’s efforts to accommodate the protests. He felt the paper should not comply with demands to restrict the variety of opinion appearing in its pages, but should rather develop mechanisms to deal with problems of this kind. The objections should have been published in the letters to the editor section, or as a feature article structured to cover both sides of the polemic.
Hawe and a number of other regular contributors to PR have refused to submit any writing for publication since the withdrawal of the poem. Their demand is a simple one: they wish to meet with the editorial board to express their concerns. Hawe has recently had a number of discussions with individual members of the editorial board, but it appears that a more formal meeting will not eventuate. He suspects some of the newspaper’s senior staff actually support the objections to the poem. It is widely thought that the action against ‘Malaikat’ was initiated by a senior writer of the newspaper.
An offensive metaphor?
And the poem itself? Hawe interprets the seven line verse as a criticism of people who express exclusive opinions based on their religious convictions. This critique is delivered metaphorically through the figure of the angel (malaikat). The poem’s first two lines are ‘Just because he has wings / The angel thinks he can nag and grumble at will’ (Mentang-mentang punya sayap / Malaikat begitu nyinyir dan cerewet). Hawe doesn’t feel the poem is anything special, but believes nevertheless that it is the sort of thing the newspaper should publish.
The newspaper’s critics, however, read the poem literally, condemning the author for using the figure of the angel as a metaphor. In its statement of objections to the poem, the DDII stated that the angel is a creation of Allah, which all Muslims must believe in and treat with reverence. It is an offence against Islam, the organisation argues, to misuse it in the way Saeful Badar is accused of doing.
In Hawe’s opinion, the editors did not withdraw the poem because they felt it was offensive. Rather, he believes that the newspaper was fearful of a large scale protest that might damage its business. In current times, a climate of fear prevails in matters of religion in West Java. The second half of 2007 saw frequent mob attacks on West Java’s minority religious groups such as the Ahmadiyah, the dhikir (formula-chanting) group known as Wahidiyyah, and the new religious movement al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah. The poem’s critics could mobilise large groups of demonstrators relatively easily, and in the existing climate, this is a frightening possibility for PR.
Throughout its 40 year history, this daily has expressed the Sundanese viewpoint more thoroughly than any other quality newspaper. Its pages draw the region’s citizens together, and some of them miss Hawe’s work.
Hawe believes that there were other agendas behind the protest against the poem. The newspaper receives many manuscripts from writers expressing exclusive and intolerant positions on religion. But it has always avoided publishing too many of these, preferring to publish material reflecting the diversity and complexity of West Java society. In Hawe’s opinion, it is possible that writers seeking more space for an exclusive Islamic position are behind the protest. The publication of the poem presented them with an opportunity to win editorial support.
Where to from here?
For now, Hawe is focusing on writing for the West Java edition of the national newspaper, Kompas. But the fact that his work is not appearing in PR makes him feel uncomfortable. Throughout its 40 year history, this daily has expressed the Sundanese viewpoint more thoroughly than any other quality newspaper. Its pages draw the region’s citizens together, and some of them miss Hawe’s work. Relatives and friends often contact him, remarking that they haven’t seen his byline in PR for a while, and wanting to know when his next article will appear.
How will all this end? Hawe thinks he and his friends will eventually return to work without having the opportunity to meet with the editorial board. This will not cause him any joy. Those who protested against the poem will feel confirmed in their self-image as upholders of decency and morality, and feel vindicated in their attempt to frighten the newspaper into adopting a conservative position. Those who value diversity in public expression about religion will find their room for movement has been restricted. And a newspaper that has always been valued for the space it has made available to a broad variety of religious outlooks may end up having moved closer to the narrow views of a small segment of its readership. ii
Julian Millie (email@example.com ) is a researcher in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University who specialises in the Islamic culture of Indonesia.