Feb 21, 2024 Last Updated 10:11 PM, Feb 20, 2024

Peace journalism in Poso

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick

Turning gently in the sea breeze which cools the town of Poso in the afternoon, the cover of Tabloid Mal is dominated by a crude cartoon drawing of a round black bomb, its fuse fizzing, and the headline Poso Bomb Mystery. Another local tabloid, Formasi, hanging alongside it from the canvas awning which shades customers browsing at the newspaper stall, is equally incendiary. Poso Reconciliation is Finished, its front page declares, in bright red capitals.

The fall of President Suharto and the repeal of his press laws triggered an explosion of new media. But no sooner was the Ministry of Information removed from the editorial process than Indonesian journalists entered a period of soul-searching about how to combine their new freedoms with a sense of responsibility.

Some coverage of the violence in Poso, in central Sulawesi, over the last two years shows these concerns. Jakarta Post, reporting on the third round of unrest in July of 2000, told its readers 124 people had been arrested for their part in 'communal clashes'. The Detik world web news service reported that a number of soldiers were being questioned, their commanding officer explaining that some had seen their own homes burned in the trouble: 'There are many whose families were murdered. That's why they helped and sided with those of a similar ideology.' Neither mentioned the religious identity of suspects or victims a restraint left over from the New Order, then a matter for the censor, now adopted as a self-denying ordinance for fear of stirring up trouble.

Can journalists in Indonesia help to reduce tensions by being honest about them? In November 2000 a group of reporters arrived in the provincial capital, Palu, in a visit sponsored by the British Council, to experiment with a set of techniques called peace journalism. All journalism is an intervention - peace journalism equips journalists covering conflicts to take an ethical approach. Three weekly magazines were represented, along with a radio station and the new 24-hour Metro TV service, as well as the Antara news agency and four national newspapers.

Kompas correspondent Maria Hartiningsih was clear about her reasons for making the trip: 'What really makes me want to do something with my reporting is that I saw a lot of innocent people become victims in this situation, especially women and childrenI have a spirit to do something to contribute to the reconciliation of this nation.'


At a rundown sports stadium on the outskirts of Palu which is now home to some 700 refugees, a clattering of carpentry tools interrupts Maria's conversation with a camp official. A group of men erect a makeshift partition to section off space for one of six or more families obliged to share a single room in sweltering conditions.

Not that she intends to wallow in the grief and trauma of the displaced. Though visibly affected by the scene, she explains: 'I want to prevent (violence), so that's why it needs another technique to explore the story, not the hatred of the people, not the emotion, not the anger, but the hope maybe, hope of the people for a new life.'

Further on, she encounters refugees living in very different conditions, thanks to a local grassroots organisation, Bantaya. A group of volunteers have banded together to care for people of either faith who were forced to flee their homes in Poso, some 220 kilometres away over the mountains.

Bantaya has persuaded landowners in Palu to lend fields for these unfortunates to cultivate. Maria is shown immaculately tended crops of black pepper and sweetcorn as well as a chilli harvest ten kilos, enough to fetch thirty thousand rupiah at local prices.

There are clerics, both Muslim and Christian, promoting understanding between their respective sections of the community. Kompas readers will learn about a church congregation working as volunteers, together with Muslim colleagues, to build and clean local mosques, for example.

To tell these stories requires frankness about the interreligious aspect of the 'communal clashes' coyly referred to by other accounts. What would be the point of reporting peace work to heal rifts between followers of different faiths if the rifts themselves were suppressed?

But peace journalism resists explanations for violence in terms of innate or essential enmities between parties the 'ancient hatreds' theory so prevalent in conflict reporting from the Middle East, the Balkans and Indonesia itself. This can make continuing strife seem inevitable, unless communities are segregated and the borders patrolled, which brings its own problems.

The road into Poso is salami-sliced into Muslim and Christian slivers, separated by paramilitary police (Brimob) observation posts at intervals of as little as fifty metres. Yet Maria's story suggests there is no inborn mutual loathing which automatically sets devotees of the two religions at each other's throats. So how did they lapse into a cycle of violence which has seen hundreds killed, three thousand houses burned down and perhaps as many as twenty thousand flee their homes?

The road itself holds a clue. It is part of the Trans-Sulawesi highway connecting the island's main cities a Suharto-era project which has brought the benefits of increased commerce as well as the problems associated with transmigration and development. The Pamona people who originally settled here learned Christianity a century ago from Dutch missionaries. New arrivals, mainly Bugis from Makassar but also a sprinkling of Javanese, tended to be Muslims until the groups attained roughly equal numbers.

By convention, the local government leader (bupati) would be drawn alternately from one section of the community, then the other. But the road and other developments made the office a valuable bauble in terms of kickbacks and patronage. With the fall of Suharto, the Muslim incumbent, Arif Patanga, challenged the convention by proposing his son Agfar to succeed him. The younger Patanga seems to have set out to turn religious difference into a political weapon to stir up trouble in Poso, with the object of keeping out the Christian candidate.

In the afternoon, the city is full of uniforms local police as well as Brimob, but also a large number of civil servants making their way home from the office. As a main administrative centre, Poso's livelihood depends heavily on public sector jobs. Simultaneous upheavals in both national and local politics were bound to have an unsettling effect.

At around this time, late 1998, a street brawl resulted in a Muslim man being cut in the arm with a knife. Instead of going to the police he rushed into a nearby mosque and called on believers to rouse themselves against the Christians who he blamed for inflicting the wound. The first round of house-burnings, known latterly as 'Poso I', ensued.

This trigger incident, and the background of political unrest, themselves suggest an alternative explanation for violence. A conflict model begins to take shape in which both parties inhabit a number of shared problems. The bupati was appointed from Palu, not elected in Poso, a deficient political system bound to encourage personal rivalry and 'top-doggery'.

Kickbacks from development projects were part of 'KKN', Corruption-Collusion-Nepotism, a flourishing culture under the New Order with its lack of transparency and accountability. These conditions encourage people to form and join groups to safeguard their interests, to stick together with those of their own kind they were one factor propelling the injured man into the arms of his co-religionists instead of taking up his grievance with the authorities.

Shared problems

By illuminating these shared problems, a peace journalist can expand the space to consider shared solutions, outcomes to the conflict which do not require one 'side' to 'win' and the other to 'lose'. As an alternative to apportioning blame, it makes it more logical to think of therapy than revenge or punishment.

About an hour's drive inland from Poso lies the town of Tentena, a Christian stronghold where blame is fixed squarely on the Muslims for 'starting it'. After Poso I, Christians turned the other cheek then that cheek was slapped in Poso II, which justified them in seeking vengeance, we were told.

At Tentena, the mountains of Lore Lindu National Park meet the shoreline of Lake Poso, famed for its wild orchids. But this bejewelled prospect is disfigured by gutted Muslim houses, while others bear a spray-painted cross to ward off the same fate. In caves in the mountains, it is said, leaders of the 'Red Squad' met and plotted Poso III, the Christians' revenge.

This version of events came from a local Christian guide who confidently asserted that Agfar Patanga had got clean away with his role as provocateur, and was now enjoying the comforts of a sinecure in Palu's local administration. Meanwhile, Christian militiamen Domingus Soares and Cornelius Tibo languished in jail proof, he believed, that the justice system could not be trusted, putting the onus on Christians to defend themselves.

Which turned out to be a symptom of another shared problem - a deficient information system. No newspapers were on sale in Tentena. It is doubtful whether townsfolk know even now that Patanga had been committed for trial in Palu.

Rumours flourish. One reporter, Misbah, from Muslim magazine Sabili, heard from refugees at Parigi that Laskar Jihad militiamen were organising and that members came openly to pray at the local mosque. They turned out to be white-robed students from the local pesantren, or religious high school.

In publicising and correcting these misconceptions, journalists themselves can contribute directly to reducing shared problems. Is that the same as the reporter's traditional role of 'reporting the facts'? For Maria Hartiningsih, this will not do. To report is to choose, and the journalist must take responsibility for those choices. The alternative to sensational tabloid headlines must include a positive choice for peace: 'Every journalist has the ideology in here, and me too my ideology is to contribute something for peace, to contribute something for justice,' she says.

Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick led the Peace Journalism trip to Poso for the British Council, organised in conjunction with a Jakarta-based NGO, LSPP, and with funding from the British Embassy. They teach the annual MA module in Peace-building Media at the University of Sydney, and run a website on responsible journalism at http://www.reportingtheworld.org/. For more information about peace journalism in Indonesia, contact Dr Nick Mawdsley (nick.mawdsley@britcoun.or.id).

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