When the pendet dance controversy turned into a media frenzy, the Indonesian news media fed the public with nonstop stories on so-called Indonesia-Malaysia tensions. Unfortunately, the news media — particularly the news stations — opt for sensationalism and even propaganda, disregarding professionalism, integrity and journalism ethics altogether. News stations openly violated press and broadcasting laws and regulations. They misled the public by consistently broadcasting false news on Indonesia-Malaysia issues generated from incredible sources.
News on the pendet controversy, the “Indonesian worker torture” video and the recent alleged Jemur Island claim by Malaysia are just a few of the alarming examples of the deliberate sensationalism by news stations. The reporting methods used are identical in each case: they choose random Web sites as a news source and then proceed to broadcast its content without any factual checks and without providing the who, what, when, where, why and how that are so vital in getting a full and complete story.
First, the pendet controversy. The overblown issue later turned out to be a misstep. The controversial promo clip depicting Balinese pendet dancers was actually put together by the Singapore-based Discovery Asia Network without ever involving a Malaysian production house or the Malaysian Tourism Agency. TV news networks erroneously reported that Malaysia claimed the dance as its own in a tourism ad. In reality, the promo clip was made by Discovery for a series of documentaries called Enigmatic Malaysia. Besides, Discovery also apologized and admitted that the depiction of pendet dancers in the clip was its sole mistake, without ever involving and consulting Malaysian authorities.
Second, an Indonesian news TV channel broadcasted a clip of a brawl circulated in the Internet and reported it as an Indonesian worker being tortured by Malaysian police. The channel even invited a national politician, who instantly roared “crush and war,” without even pausing to question the authenticity of the clip.
It turned out to be just another news TV blunder when the Department of Foreign Affairs clarified that the man in the video was not Indonesian. Oddly, the clarification received little media attention and afterwards the news just disappeared without any correction by the station.
A more recent example of the news TV hype is the report on Malaysia’s claim of Jemur Island. First, the news TV reported that Malaysia made the claim based on a travel Web site of unidentifiable origin that inaccurately listed Jemur Island as part of Malaysia. Note that there is no plausible link whatsoever between the Web site and the Malaysia government or any Malaysian. The news station went on to ask a Riau government official’s comment on the “claim.” Misled by the channel, the government official immediately reacted by stating that Malaysia has no right to claim Jemur Island — again, without pausing to question the accuracy of the news. The news turned out to be another news TV hoax, as later verified by the general counsel of Malaysia and the director of tourism in Medan.
Strangely, despite the blunders, news TV programs keep on disseminating false news in their reports on Indonesia-Malaysia issues and perpetuating misleading sound bites such as “the continuous Malaysia provocation by claiming pendet dance and Jemur Island as well as torturing an Indonesian worker.”
As a result, the nonstop news TV hype has ignited outrage among some people who passively absorb the news feed without a critical eye. For example, we saw on the news recently a group of people who facilitated a volunteer militia for war against Malaysia. They held war trainings and even unduly stopped people on the street seeking Malaysian nationals. We also witnessed some government officials and politicians react prematurely and emotionally over the false news. There were demonstrations that displayed uncivilized acts such as flag burning and vandalism. Further, a national university even declared that it stopped admitting Malaysian students for “the cause of nationalism” in light of the Indonesia-Malaysia tension. Last but not least, online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter were bombarded by profanities and naive remarks about Malaysia. All of these reactions of narrow-minded jingoism largely resulted from uncritical and passive absorption of the misleading media feed.
Amid the rapid growth of the new digital media, our collective consciousness and public opinion are still very much characterized by the dominance of images and visual language of TV. TV is a powerful and emotionally engaging pictorial medium capable of creating intense emotional involvement via stimulation of the emotional hemisphere of the brain while neutralizing the logical reasoning powers. An uncritical consumption of TV, particularly news, engenders a great deal of activated ignorance, prejudice, misconception, half-truths and over-simplification. The matter worsens when the TV news is geared toward sensationalism and propaganda, eliciting jingoist fanaticism and infantile egocentrism. In the case of the Indonesia-Malaysia issue, the repeated broadcast of false news and even a hoax by TV networks is tantamount to propaganda and agitation by way of disinformation and fabrication of atrocities.
Further, the broadcast of false news and disinformation constitutes a violation of the laws and regulations in the press and broadcasting field, including the Press Law, the Broadcasting Law, Journalistic Code of Ethics, Broadcasting Guidelines, and Broadcasting Content Standard.
The Press and Broadcasting Regulations require TV stations to uphold professionalism and to produce news that are accurate and factual, generated from credible sources. The Broadcasting Law expressly prohibits the broadcast of news content that is misleading, aggravating or may damage international relations. The Press and Broadcasting Regulations also require TV programs to immediately announce rectification and apology to the viewers following the broadcast of inaccurate and false news.
The TV news hype in the so-called Indonesia-Malaysia tension has taught us a valuable lesson: We must approach the news media feed with a critical eye instead of passively absorbing it with a bewildered herd mentality.
The hype surrounding the Indonesia-Malaysia issues exemplifies the unreliability and untrustworthiness of TV news. Let these examples be a reminder for us in the future to be more critical of any information in the news and refrain from reacting prematurely or acting irrationally before we get the facts and the five Ws straight, as well as questioning the origin of the news and the credibility of the source.
Agah SN is a lawyer and a media observer in Jakarta. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .