Wed, 19 Mar 2003

`Tempo' attack a sign of weak civil society

Prasetyohadi, Researcher, Jakarta

Hoodlumism is an endemic socio-political problem in Indonesia. Yet it rarely becomes an open public discussion, as it has become now. The assault on the Tempo magazine office is only the tip of the iceberg.

Commuters on city buses know well that some street musicians act like hoodlums, extorting money from passengers. They consider Rp 100 or Rp 200 given to them an insult, prompting them to issue threats of violence. In some cases, they board buses in groups and force passengers to give them Rp 1,000 each.

"Donations" have long become "extortion", conducted openly, without shame. Bus passengers' pity has turned into annoyance. The hoodlums among the otherwise polite street musicians and beggars are generally unemployed young men, victims to protracted unemployment. The Central Bureau of Statistics in its January 2003 release said that, conservatively, the unemployment rate had reached 30 percent.

In the hoodlum business, members must show loyalty to their bosses to ensure their future. And the greater the number of these would-be hoodlums reflect not only the increasingly keener competition among hoodlums, but that hoodlumism has become more rampant in urban areas. To rent a mob one only needs Rp 20,000 for each person plus transportation and lunch fees.

Practices related to hoodlumism have increased, especially because life has become more open while proper legal practices are still vague. Openness is enjoyed not only by the mass media but also by other activities of assembly, including the organization and transactions of hoodlums.

The police are not uninformed about this, yet they do nothing. It is still unclear whether their inaction is attributable to their incapability or fear. Reportedly, police have acted like protectors of sorts to hoodlums as the police are cash-strapped for their operations.

Hoodlumism is known to be an urban criminal tendency. Hoodlums prey not only on the middle class, but also on the urban poor, including sidewalk vendors, city bus drivers and workers. Hoodlumism or the practice of paying money in exchange for muscle is the most vulgar form of money politics, and becomes worse when mixed up with drug dealing and weapon transactions.

The argument that hoodlumism can be tolerated to reduce unemployment -- a pretext usually forwarded by the bosses of hoodlums and officials backing hoodlumism, is unacceptable. Yet the official public space, in which the mass media find themselves, is now being incapacitated as hoodlums intensify their underworld practices with the support of their established allies.

Hoodlums were earlier employed as private security guards by security authorities to help them deal with the peaceful protest rallies organized by university students. In many cases, these private security guards attacked the students. Such people were also hired by companies -- with the knowledge of the security apparatus -- to deal with labor protests. They also worked for major political parties as their paramilitary-like task forces.

Understandably, there were many instances in which journalists were subjected to violent acts by these people. They were also hired to trigger riots like the one prior to the assault on the office of the PDI headquarters on July 27, 1996 or the massive mid-May 1998 riot that led to Soeharto's downfall.

As one riot after another broke out across the country, hoodlums would always get jobs. The riots in Ketapang, Jakarta in November 1998, in Ambon, Maluku in January 1999 and in Pontianak in October 2000 were but a few examples. In the protracted communal conflicts in Maluku that claimed the lives of thousands of people, those practicing hoodlumism rode on the spotlight of heroism projected by religious groups involved in the conflict.

Ironically, they called themselves the grassroots. Hoodlums use their muscle to attack their enemies (political and economic) under whatever pretext (the interest of the authorities, a dominant political party, a big businessman, a military wing, separatism, internal conflicts of media workers, religion, ethnicity and so on).

In 1980, the Soeharto regime pursued a policy of hoodlum extermination. Their dead bodies were bagged and dumped on public roads. An estimated 8,000 suspected hoodlums lost their lives in this way. The government pursued this policy to maintain stability so that economic development could run as planned. Fearing for their lives, these hoodlums joined the task forces of the three government-sanctioned political parties -- Golkar, the United Development Party (PPP) and the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). They sold their loyalty to these government-made parties.

Will this uncivilized method have to be resorted to again?

During the 1945 revolution for independence, young people, amid the lawlessness following the end of Japanese occupation and Dutch colonization, acted in a highly "revolutionary" fashion. Anything associated with the Dutch was attacked and looted. Very often, their victims were Indonesians. Some of these young men later became "heroes of the revolution".

It is hard to accept that this black track record is part of the current process of reform. Regarding the media alone, the editorial office of Jawa Pos daily in Surabaya was occupied by the task force of Nahdlatul Ulama, Banser, in May 2000. A number of students, alumni and lecturers of the School of Sports Sciences, State University of Padang, destroyed the office of Bijak tabloid on July 7, 2000. The office of Radar Cirebon daily in Cirebon, West Java was damaged by the Forum of Communication of Cirebon City Community along with the task force of Ansor, NU's youth wing, on Jan. 18, 2001. The organization of military offspring (FKPPI) mobilized its members to damage the editorial office of Waspada in Medan on Jan. 13, 2001. Then on April 2001, 15 hoodlums supporting the local Mickey Mouse gambling business attacked the office of Sriwijaya Post daily. In Aceh, the office of the Serambi Indonesia daily had to close temporarily after a handmade bomb, reportedly placed by members of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) separatist group in a waste basket in the newspaper's editorial office, went off.

These show the effective and important role of the media, so much so that even "illiterate" hoodlums have a stake in this respect. The media constitute groups with power because they can influence public opinion and attitude. The media may boost or tarnish someone's reputation, or protect business and political interests.

The assault on Tempo, a prestigious magazine, differs from other similar assaults on the media in that this particular attack has become a wake-up call for broader segments of the community.

As hoodlumism is practiced in nearly every aspect of life when it touches the interests of power and business, media workers must mobilize forces just like the mobilization of the democratization movement of the country's middle class from 1994 until the downfall of Soeharto in 1998, following the 1994 ban slapped on Tempo, Detik and Editor. Of course, the mobilization of the media workers must be supported by other groups.

Obviously, those usually harmed by hoodlums such as the urban poor, the workers and ordinary citizens will support this fight against hoodlumism. Without their support, a movement against hoodlumism will be driven only by our middle class, a social group which has proven not to be strong enough to change our rotten social structure.