Jun 21, 2024 Last Updated 1:20 AM, Jun 20, 2024

Making peace newsworthy

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Jake Lynch

Indonesian journalists have the advantage over most of their Western counterparts in at least one respect - experience of frontline conflict coverage.

As recent training workshops with Indonesian journalists reveal, by contrast, that many have indeed been close to violence and now carry, seared into their minds, some terrible sights and experiences from the conflicts that have scarred so many parts of the country in recent years.

In late 2002, more than 200 Indonesian journalists, including reporters and editors from SCTV, RCTI, Kompas and the Antara news agency participated in peace journalism training workshops in Jakarta, Surabaya, Makassar and Manado. The workshops were part of a broader peace journalism project, which the author helped to run, and which were developed in conjunction with the British Council, as well as several Indonesian media reform groups, and funded by the British Embassy.

The Manado leg of the trip comprised a workshop for journalists from north Maluku, as well as a field trip where participants from national news organisations filed reports for their own newsdesks, with trainers acting as consultants, encouraging them to think about how their reporting would contribute to a wider understanding of peacebuilding concepts in Indonesia.

With a plentiful supply of conflict zones to choose from, why, then, did we end up in Manado for a field trip in Peace Journalism, where we worked alongside journalists from leading news organisations as they filed reports aimed at helping Indonesian society to seek peaceful solutions to conflicts?

Peaceful conflict

Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi, is, after all, known as one of the safest places in Indonesia. In fact, Manado offers important lessons about both conflict and peace, for North Sulawesi has managed to avoid the violence engulfing its neighbours. In North Maluku and Ambon to the east, and Poso to the south, Muslims and Christians ended up at each other's throats - but not here.

Across the Celebes sea lie the troubled southern provinces of the Philippines - Mindanao, Basilan and Jolo, fingered in the War on Terror as strongholds of Muslim separatism and Abu Sayyaf kidnappers. And what's this in Manado, revealed to the more careful observer? Look again, and the cupolas of the occasional Mosque - less conspicuous but still numerous - are visible on the skyline. This colourful, vibrant, thriving city has different strokes for different folks.

What's at stake for such a community is not the absence of conflict but the capacity to respond to conflict issues with non-violent means. The word, 'conflict' is often used, in news reports, as a synonym for fighting or violence. Understanding the difference is crucial to peace journalism. In an analytical sense, conflict simply means two or more parties pursuing incompatible goals.

If, in order to avoid a repetition of the harrowing scenes witnessed by many Indonesian journalists, we required an absence of conflict, we would be condemned to perennial disappointment. The peace journalists descended on Manado to try to find out how this beautiful city has managed to live with conflict, within and without - and yet avoided lapsing into the kind of violence that has afflicted surrounding areas across a radius of hundreds of miles. Peace, in Manado, is something that many people are actively working at, all the time.

These active people include religious leaders, coming together to give messages of tolerance and mutual understanding to their followers. Relief agencies have worked to prevent the trauma brought to North Sulawesi, in the minds of thousands of refugees from North Maluku, from festering, and potentially inflaming religious sensibilities in Manado itself. The peace journalists will never forget the sight and sound of Christian children, singing Christian songs in a refugee camp, led by a Muslim teacher wearing a headscarf (jilbab).

Good news and hard news

In the hands of the more creative reporters, interviews with these children, about their hopes and experiences, became the basis for wonderful stories, full of imaginative connections and arresting images, which contain much of the music of today's Indonesia. These were great pieces of peace journalism - real contributions to the understanding we will need if a more peaceful future is to lie ahead.

Most editors would still think of these as 'features', but there was no shortage of 'hard news' in Manado either. This was the time of the Bali bomb, and Manado had its own explosion on the same night. Its location - outside the Philippines consulate - seemed to portend infiltration by outsiders, intent on drawing Manado into political struggles which have taken on a religious overtone.

The incident did draw a show of strength from the city's famous militia groups; prominent among them, Brigade Manguni, the 'Night Owls' of North Sulawesi. Their rampage through the streets, hundreds clinging to open-topped vehicles, wearing black t-shirts and shouting at the top of their voices, looked both spectacular and slightly sinister - it certainly made dramatic TV pictures.

Listen carefully to these people, though, and they project a sort of muscular communitarianism, which may not be as threatening as their appearance suggests. What would they do, if, for instance, any of their members discovered 'outsiders' in Manado? Why, hand them over to the police, of course. If they keep their word - and the signs are that, so far, broadly speaking, they have - then that would at least represent a step forward from the situation in other, more troubled parts.

In Poso, for instance, the trigger incident for the first round of rioting came when a Muslim man, injured in a street brawl with Christian youths, ran instead into a local Mosque to rouse fellow believers to take revenge. One pervasive form of structural violence in Indonesia is a lack of impartial and transparent law enforcement - so people don't trust or feel they can rely on the police. The militias in Manado were formed amid suspicions that Laskar Jihad was plotting to cause trouble. In a sense, tseirs could be a positive response - 'OK, let's give the police a helping hand, as vigilant and active citizens'.

There are dangers to this situation of course, to do with 'in-group' and 'out-group' politics. Who decides who belongs here and who does not; and how? Police were just beginning to carry out sweeps for ID cards, something the militias have been calling for, but there were fears that this could prove divisive. Word on the street was that, if you really wanted an ID card, you had to pay considerably more than the official going rate of Rp 5,000, or face an interminable wait. Those without proper accreditation were likely to be the poor, like refugees who now cling to one of the lowest rungs of the economic ladder as street vendors.

In Ethnic Conflict & Civic Life, Ashutosh Varshney, an Indian political scientist based at the University of Michigan, offers a sociological profile of 'Peaceful Cities' in India, which identifies several common characteristics. One is that members of different sections of the communi$y mingle freely in civic society.

In Manado, we met a group of volleyball players - some Christian, some Muslim; their game taking place in the shadow of one of the city's most beautiful churches, with a local religious leader (ulama) among the spectators. Equally, we discovered journalists making their own contribution. In Ambon, notoriously, the giant Jawa Pos group runs both a Christian and a Muslim newspaper, each of which has often adopted a strident sectarian stance. Here, there is just one Jawa Pos group newspaper, the Manado Post, and every day it has a double-page spread called Teropong - 'Lens' in English - devoted to cross-cutting religious issues. Christian, Islamic and other religious figures are equally at home here; a Muslim and a Christian journalist form the dynamic two-person team responsible for it.

Jake Lynch (JakeMLynch@aol.com) helped run the Peace Journalism project, and was one of the trainers at the Manado workshop.

Inside Indonesia 74: Apr - Jul 2003

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