Sweet reasonableness and censorship in Jakarta

The Jakarta Post -- Indonesia's chief English-language newspaper -- has run two articles on the conflicts within Islam percolating in Java. The articles give a crisp account of the disturbances amongst the various religious groups; but there appears to have been a sharp swing in the authorial voice between the first and second story. I feel the fell hand of self-censorship at work in these reports. Lets take a look at the two Jakarta Post stories. On 2 May 2012 the Post reported that Sunni Muslim leaders had called upon the government to ban proselytizing by Shia Muslims.  (Indonesia's population is approximately 88 per cent Muslim -- with approximately 200 million Sunni, 1 million Shia and 500,000 Ahmadi Muslims.) The Post quoted the leaders of a Sunni clergy group as saying Shia Islam was blasphemous and a threat to national security.

 “There are at least three objections to Shiite teachings. First, Shiite sect considers that the current Koran has been corrupted. Second, it recalls that only Shiite clerics hold the ultimate authorities to interpret the hadiths,” forum head Athian Ali told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.

And the third, he added, was because the Shiite sect acknowledged contract-based marriage, where they could perform marriages to their own preferences.

“This could be used to legalize prostitution,” he added.

A second senior cleric stated:

“We should be alert toward the Shiite political agenda because it could harm the idea of the Unitary State of Indonesia (NKRI),” he said.

In the Shiite perspective, it is the clerics, and not the government, who hold the ultimate authority to rule the country.

The article closes with a report that a Shiite cleric has been jailed and awaiting a hearing in Java because the police believe his proselytizing might anger the Sunni majority and lead to violence. The overall tone of the article is matter of fact -- the editorial voice does not dispute the arguments put forward by the Sunni clerics. No Shia voices are heard nor is there anything in the story that would suggest the Post did not agree with these sentiments.

The next day, however, the Post's editorial voice moved away from the Sunni clerics after a government minister made his views known. The second day story  began:

The government will monitor anti-Shiite groups in the regions of West Java and East Java "very seriously", Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Nasaruddin Umar has warned.

Nasaruddin said that outlawing the Shia sect would be “a very serious problem”, arguing that even conservative Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia have never banned the denomination.

“We must also be very careful with this issue, because it may disturb our relations with countries like Iran, which has many citizens who follow the Shia teachings,” he said in response to anti-Shiite sentiments in West Java and East Java.

The article notes the arguments offered by the Sunni clerics the previous day and also mentions the jailing of the Shia cleric -- but adds further information:

Last December, hundreds of people burned four houses, a prayer house and other facilities at a boarding school run by Tajul Muluk, a Shiite leader. Tajul is standing trial on blasphemy charges.

The article then provides quotes from Sunni scholars urging tolerance for Shiites. And closes with a quote from a national religions leader that “the Prophet Muhammad has told us that we must not fight each other regardless of our differences."

Isn't that something! Blasphemous traitorous Shiites on day 1 are now part of the Ulema on day 2. Is there any connection with the government minister's views and the change of editorial line?

And -- some Muslims are more Muslim than other Muslims for the Post.  While the second day story argues that it is now wrong to stigmatize the Shiites, the Ahmadis remain beyond the pale. Blasphemy laws will not be used to penalize the million Shia Indonesians, but will be enforced to silence the half million Ahmadis.

In response to complaints of bylaws restricting religious teachings, mainly those of the Ahmadiyah sect, the Home Ministry has said they do not violate the Constitution and the regional autonomy law.

What is going on here? After the fall of the Suharto regime, the 1999 Press Law was enacted guaranteeing Indonesian press the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information. Although the censors at the Ministry of Information were sent home, there remains a sensibility in the Post, as evidenced by these stories, that some things are best left unsaid. I can imagine a very polite man from the government advising the editor to be "responsible" when reporting on sectarian divisions.

Now is that such a bad thing? It was British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin who stated that journalists enjoy “the privilege of the harlot down the ages—power without responsibility.”

Baldwin's jibe at the press resonates on one level as there is something essentially base in journalism. Satisfying the pointless curiosity about what is going on in the world  in reporting on people who are famous for being famous serves a questionable moral purpose.

While some journalists are shills -- propagandizing hacks who have lost (if they ever had) a commitment to truth -- the professional failings of some does not do away with the fact that information remains an indispensable part of an educated and democratic society. And journalism is the only way we can have this information.

But where should the line be drawn between being "reasonable" in exercising discretion and complete transparency. Is it reasonable for the Post to go out of its way to tell its readers the Shia are O.K. after having run a story saying they are suspect? Are they being reasonable and averting the sort of violence the article mentioned in the first story? Or did they change their mind?

The journalism of yesteryear sought to live according to Guardian's C.P. Scott's mantra: "Comment is free, but facts are sacred." Can this be said of these stories? Was this a case of national security or public order that required the Post to make a fool of itself by switching horses between story 1 and story 2? Or was it sweet reasonableness?

What say you GetReligion readers?

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