The plight of victims has been covered by local and international
This is a story of politics, business, and newspapers in Indonesia. It is a story of how Indonesia’s richest man, Aburizal Bakrie, came to buy a struggling newspaper, the Surabaya Post, and the consequences of this purchase. The story begins in 2006 with the much-publicised eruption of mud in Sidoarjo, where the Lapindo Brantas mining company was drilling for natural gas. The company has continued to deny any responsibility for this devastating disaster, claiming that the mudflow was triggered by an earthquake near Yogyakarta three days before – an explanation that has been dismissed by numerous international experts. The mudflow has since displaced more than 40,000 people, and some estimates suggest it could flow for decades.
Lapindo Brantas is controlled by Aburizal Bakrie, who was Co-ordinating Minister for Public Welfare at the time of the disaster. According to Forbes magazine, Bakrie was also Indonesia’s wealthiest man, with an empire worth $US5.4 billion. Bakrie-controlled companies have interests spanning Indonesia's economy in mining, oil and gas, palm oil, property, telecommunications and finance. The mudflow has been a personal disaster for Bakrie, both financially and for his reputation. The Bakrie family business nearly collapsed in 2008, when a plunge in the shares of six Bakrie-linked firms prompted the Indonesian Stock Exchange to close for three days. In the same year, Indonesia’s leading weekly news magazine, Tempo, published a picture of Aburizal Bakrie on the front cover with a mosaic of numbers, including the figures 666, superimposed on his face. Bakrie threatened a defamation suit against Tempo, but few people had sympathy for the man whose company was increasingly seen as having been responsible for swamping entire villages, factories and towns in a toxic sludge.
Newspapers – particularly those in Surabaya, the closest major city to the disaster – have also been very critical of Bakrie and Lapindo Brantas. Stories have focussed on the plight of the victims, the company’s inability to stem the continual flow of mud and its reluctance to compensate those who were displaced. As Syrikit Syah, former Chief Editor of the Surabaya Post recalled, ‘We were all pro [mudflow] victims in the news section. No one could stop us from publishing what we thought worth publishing.’ But for journalists at the Surabaya Post, at least, that quickly came to an end.
A struggling newspaper
Established as an afternoon newspaper in 1953, by early 2008 the Surabaya Post was facing closure due to insufficient advertising revenue and an owner’s unwillingness to operate at a loss. Bakrie stepped in to purchase the ailing newspaper, adding it to his portfolio of media businesses which include stakes in television stations ANTV, TVONE and ArekTV (Surabaya) and the online wire service VivaNews. Upon purchase of the Surabaya Post, two Lapindo executives, Bambang Prasetyo Widodo and Gesang Budiarso, were appointed as directors of the newspaper. Both held managerial positions in PT Minarak Lapindo Jaya, the subsidiary of Lapindo tasked to handle the mudflow.
Surabaya Post journalists complain that the change of ownership has led to a different culture, and they are reluctant to report anything that might involve the owner’s business interests. Dhimam Abror has been chief editor of the Surabaya Post since 2008. A former chief editor of Jawa Pos and the now defunct Suara Indonesia, he admitted that he had to adjust his position on the mudflow upon joining the Post, because there was a ‘fine line’ when reporting about Lapindo: 'It is well known that Bakrie has interests in business and politics. There is no direct intervention from him, of course, but we knew that it is better to write some stories with a different point of view, or a different angle.' He claims that there are more pro-Lapindo articles because journalists have more access to Bakrie’s sources. But Sirikit Syah, now a lecturer in Communications at Petra University in Surabaya, argues that this was the point of the purchase all along: ‘It is crystal clear that taking over Surabaya Post was destined to reduce or eliminate negative reporting and to increase positive reporting of the Lapindo company.’
After the purchase, changes were immediately evident in how the mudflow and Lapindo were reported. One journalist observed that while staff still wanted to write human interest stories about the ongoing plight of people in Sidoarjo, it was difficult to do so because ‘Middle-level management created an atmosphere of self-censorship and the human interest stories dropped.’ Another said, ‘It is true that we have been told to not write bad things about Lapindo in relation to the mud volcano. The bosses have said, 'Don’t write the details', like if there is a rally against Lapindo. Mostly we are pressured to use sources from our own company, those that are also involved with Lapindo.’
After the purchase by Bakrie changes were immediately evident in how the mudflow and Lapindo were reported
Several other journalists also admitted that they were under considerable pressure to quote official Lapindo sources at every opportunity when reporting the mudflow, and had begun to self-censor. Some reported that instruction came from the two Lapindo executives about how stories on the mudflow should be worded. Editors were to refer to the mudflow as the ‘Sidoarjo mudflow’, rather than ‘the Lapindo mud volcano’, the term most commonly used in the media. According to Fiqih, a cadet journalist for the Post, journalists were worried about their future employment if they made negative comments about the company in their articles. However, he doubted whether an editor would approve a negative article for publication. Another Post journalist lamented; ‘We used to report exactly on the condition in the field, the impact of the mudflow. We seldom write about it now. The mud is still spewing out, but for us, it is like the earth swallowed it.'
Official investigations complicate reporting
There are additional difficulties for journalists reporting on the mudflow stemming from the outcome of official investigations into Lapindo liability for the disaster. A police investigation on Lapindo’s involvement in the mudflow limped along for more than three years before officials announced in August 2008 that they were dropping the case. Soon after a government investigation declared that the mudflow was a natural disaster. One journalist explained that it is difficult to criticise the company because it has never been proven that Lapindo was responsible for the mud volcano, and the court found that there was no relationship between the company and the disaster.
While official investigations may have supported Lapindo’s argument that the mudflow was a natural disaster, many people in Surabaya remained sceptical of this finding. This is where owning a newspaper comes in. Bakrie’s purchase of the Surabaya Post allowed Lapindo to get their message out directly. It led to more stories about Lapindo solving problems in Sidoarjo, rather than causing them. This is a concern for many supporters of press freedom in Indonesia, who argue that pressures from owners interfere with independent and critical journalism. In a democracy, newspapers should attempt to represent the interests of the powerless and those without a voice, rather than be a mouthpiece for interests who own and dominate the country.
Ross Tapsell(firstname.lastname@example.org) is a visiting scholar at the University of Indonesia and holds an Australian Government Endeavour Postdoctorate Award.