Questions begin to stir on Indonesia’s death penalty policy

Questions begin to stir on Indonesia’s death penalty policy

A select few Indonesian scholars, journalists and activists are urging a rethink of the country’s policy of the death penalty, writes ROSS TAPSELL.

Since Indonesia’s transition to democracy began in 1998 journalists have been able to comment on and criticise government policies. But during time spent in Indonesia’s main newsrooms since January as part of a larger research project, I’ve found very few newsroom staff critical of the Indonesian government’s new hardline approach to executing drug traffickers.

My visit coincided with another bad moment for Australia–Indonesia relations: the slated executions of convicted Australian drug traffickers Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, and eight others. If the executions proceed, this will be the second batch of convicted drug traffickers to face the firingsquad since Joko Widodo—popularly known as Jokowi—became president last October.

I found there was only mild interest in uncovering stories of the individuals due to be executed, including the Indonesian nationals among them. While Australia’s media saw the looming deaths of Chan and Sukumaran as a major news story, Indonesian media organisations have generally ranked the story well down on their list of priorities, or treated it as a contest between ‘national sovereignty’ and the calls for the executions—from the Australian government and others—to be abandoned.

But not all Indonesian media outlets have been taking this line. Executives from Indonesia’s most widely circulated newspaper, Kompas, have been lobbying the government to hold off on the second round of executions. ‘It’s not related to sovereignty, it’s about humanity,’ Kompas chief editor Rikard Bagun told me.

Writer Goenawan Mohamad told Jokowi he is against the death penalty.

The widely respected writer Goenawan Mohamad told Jokowi during a private meeting that he is against the death penalty. In 1946, when Goenawan was only six years old, his father was taken from his home by the Dutch and shot as a suspected member of the guerilla movement. ‘It leaves a trauma that only those who have had that experience know,’ says Goenawan. ‘You are edgy, particularly about guns, blood and violence.’

Rikard Bagun and many others have little faith in the Indonesian legal system. ’If we execute we cannot correct errors,’ he says. ‘We are trying to oppose this [the death penalty]. We give a space for criticism, but we don’t want to exploit the victims.’

Goenawan says it is understandable that many news organisations don’t cover the issue at any great length, and that many Indonesians don’t oppose the death penalty. ‘We see so many deaths in our lives,’ he says. ‘Disease. Famine. Natural disasters. Terrorism. Even death by traffic accidents is very common here. Death is nothing unusual here, nor is violence. When the police shoot a terrorist suspect without a trial there is usually applauding, even in the media. In contrast, Australia is less exposed to death.’

A select few Indonesian scholars, journalists and activists advance other reasons for Indonesia to rethink the policy of the death penalty.
Shouldn’t those who have reformed while on death row be granted clemency? Is there really a drug ‘emergency’? Even if there is, does executing mules solve the problem? All deserve more weight in the mainstream media in Indonesia. But media coverage, particularly content encouraging interaction via social media, is often based on what will raise emotions.

kingpins, masterminds and ringleaders

In the Australian media, the story has largely revolved around the circumstances of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran—their lives in the prison system, their stories of reform and what they and their families were going through. But in Indonesia, Chan and Sukumaran are often described as kingpins, masterminds and ringleaders.

In the contemporary news media, events are subject to instantaneous, rolling coverage, and Australians have certainly been avid viewers and readers of the unfolding courtroom dramas of Schapelle Corby, Michelle Leslie and the Bali Nine.

If news is supposed to be the ‘what, why, where, when and how’, the salient feature of the rolling coverage of Chan and Sukumaran has been the ‘when’.When are they on the list for executions? When would they be transferred from Bali? When would they be given 72 hours’ notice? When are they likely to be shot?

Others on death row in Indonesia, particularly the African nationals, have not had their story told. Was this another form of nationalist posturing through the media, with only Australian lives seen to matter? In the eyes of many Indonesians, yes. ‘You have your hypocrisy,’ Goenawan says. ‘When the Bali bombers were on death row many Australian people wanted them to be executed.’ But the views of other non-Australian journalists varied.

A fair number of Indonesians see the death penalty, as punishment and deterrent, as a possible solution to rampant corruption.

While many commented that the Australian media was reporting only on Chan and Sukumaran, they also pointed out that the Australian journalists’ job is ‘to report what’s valuable to your local audience, and you can’t fault them for that’. The Australian coverage of the death penalty may have assisted in turning the story into a bilateral relations rift, but it also seems to have encouraged more coverage of the issue in the newsrooms of Indonesia.

Although nothing compares precisely to the extremity and finality of state-sanctioned murder, Australian governments have not been above introducing extreme laws to counter what is presented in the media or by politicians as ‘extreme’ problems: terrorism, metadata and bikie laws, for example, or offshore detention camps.

Indonesians are not as hypersensitive about drugs as Australians are about irregular migration, but many support the death penalty, partly because information about its effectiveness tends to be one-sided. In fact, a fair number of Indonesians see the death penalty, as punishment and deterrent, as a possible solution to rampant corruption.

Australia’s stop-the-boats policy and Indonesia’s executions are similar because they are unilateral, tough-yet-effective answers to a problem (asylum seeker deaths at sea, or deaths caused by drugs), even if they ignore larger, longer-term regional and humanitarian issues and are criticised by the United Nations and neighbouring countries.

In stopping the boats or executing drug mules, politicians tap into nationalist rhetoric and fears about a loss of sovereignty. The Australian government made this abundantly clear by naming the policy Operation Sovereign Borders. Abbott’s recent declaration that Australians ‘are sick of being lectured to by the UN’ echoed exactly how many Indonesian politicians feel about foreign ‘interventions’ regarding the death penalty.

Indonesian lobbying

That Indonesia has prioritised the execution of foreigners (14 among the 16 prisoners already executed or due to be executed) while lobbying for its own citizens on death row in other countries shows just how nationalistic this policy has become. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Jokowi said he didn’t see the two parts of the policy as contradictory: ‘As a head of state, of course I’m going to try to save my citizens from execution.’ What kind of system have we invented, where national leaders (not only Indonesia) feel it perfectly natural to execute citizens in their country while trying to save their own nationals from a similar fate overseas?

The hardline approach to executions is a victory for nationalist chest-beating over human compassion. The proposed executions will understandably leave many disappointed with the Indonesian government, and unlikely to seek out information about the country’s culture and politics.

In Australia in particular, surveys show a poor understanding of Indonesia and its democracy. Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was right when he told the Australian parliament in 2010, ‘There are Australians who still see Indonesia as an authoritarian country or a military dictatorship or as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, or even as an expansionist power.’ The disagreement over the death penalty will reinforce the stereotypes.

In his political career to date, Jokowi seemed to represent what foreigners who have spent time in Indonesia recognise as its most endearing traits—openness, warmth, humour, humility and placidity. These traits could have opened a window for outsiders into these aspects of Indonesian culture and society. But as Jakarta Post editor Endy Bayuni writes:

Gone is the humble, all-ears and soft-spoken Javanese man who captured the imagination of voters at last year’s elections. In his place, we have a president who is projecting a tough and uncompromising image, and one that has little or no compassion so that he readily signs the death warrants of dozens of people on death row, without looking at their individual cases.

Should the executions go ahead, the death penalty will create negative headlines about Indonesia, overshadowing the vibrancy and warmth that the country offers Australians and others around the world.

This is an edited version of an article first published in Inside Story.

Dr Ross Tapsell is a lecturer in Asian Studies at the Australian National University. He researches the media in Indonesia.

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