Sat, 07 Sep 2002

Don't shoot the messengers

President Megawati Soekarnoputri, who was widely criticized last week for her administration's poor handling of Indonesian workers deported from Malaysia, is now trying to shift the blame: on the press. Speaking to the Indonesian community in Johannesburg on the last day of her visit to South Africa, Megawati was reported on Friday to have said that the press has blown the problem of the returning workers out of proportion.

Insisting that her administration has done everything in its power to assist the workers, she targeted her attack on the number of deaths in makeshift shelters in Nunukan in East Kalimantan. She said that officially, the death toll was 33, not the 60-plus figure that has been widely reported in the press.

President Megawati has every right to defend her record and to counter criticisms. But shooting the messenger, a new and unfortunate pastime she has acquired of late, is not only unhelpful for her image, it is certainly not helping the plight of the workers either.

If anything, the media's greatest shortcoming in reporting the plight of these deported workers is that we have not exposed it proportionally within the scope of the disaster, and early enough to prompt a timely and proper government action that could have saved precious lives.

This is a problem that should have been anticipated as far back as February when the Malaysian government first gave notice to all foreigners who were working illegally there of an impending tough immigration law and a crackdown after July 31. Instead, the government seems to have done very little -- if anything at all -- to prepare for the safe return or at the very least ease the passage home of these Indonesian illegal workers, whose numbers are believed to number in the hundreds of thousands.

The media only started providing serious coverage at the end of July as the deadline neared. But the problem began in May, when some of these workers began to stream back through Nunukan, and when casualties were already in evidence, but never reported.

This explains the discrepancy between the official and unofficial death toll figures for Nunukan that President Megawati quibbles about. The 60-plus figure includes those who died in May; the official 30-plus figure only included the deaths beginning in late July. By disputing the death toll, when real people, mostly children, are still dying because help was not forthcoming, the government has highlighted its lack of sensitivity to the problem.

The media and Megawati's critics may have made too much of a direct comparison in contrasting Megawati with Philippine President Gloria Arroyo in handling the problem. Arroyo personally went to greet the Philippine workers deported from Malaysia last week; Megawati decided to go ahead with her lengthy overseas trip. Admittedly, this contrasting approach was simply too resistible to ignore.

The press's greatest failure is not in blowing the problem out of proportion, but in failing to raise the alarm bells early enough that would have prevented this problem from turning into the national tragedy that it is today. But once this problem was given extensive press coverage, the government's response should have been to mend its ways and to show that it truly cares for these workers. Instead, all it's been doing is to try to find scapegoats. And Megawati is aiming her gun at the press.

The President may still not get the message about the tragedy of the Indonesian workers that is still evolving in Nunukan, but it would be dead wrong for her to blame the press. After all, we are only the messengers, whose job it is sometimes to deliver the bad news.