By: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Dikanaya Tarahita

An Indonesian graduate student in the Netherlands named Dwi Hartanto has ignited a scandal at home by calling himself an aerospace expert with myriad achievements in rocket technology, satellites and combat aircraft expertise. He also claimed to serve as an assistant professor at Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands’ largest and oldest public technological institution of higher education although he has yet to finish his PhD thesis, entitled “Computer-based Social Anxiety Regulation in Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy.” He is also undergoing an ethics code investigation by TU Delft.

Unfortunately, mainstream media including Detik, Tempo, Liputan6, and Batampos have been taken in. Hartanto was also invited for an exclusive interview for Metro TV television channel, a highly watched news channel in Indonesia, where he was praised and dubbed the first non-European to enter European Space Agency (ESA), an accomplishment that was entirely fabricated.

Eventually his stories caught up with him. He was forced to write a five-page clarification and apology detailing his fabrications he had invented since 2015. Not only did he falsify documents from related institutions to back up his lies of achievements, he also humiliated his alma mater and Indonesian students in the Netherlands.

Hartono’s dubious exploits have opened a controversy over the integrity and responsibility among some of Indonesia’s best-known and publicly trustworthy media, which appear to have done nothing to verify his claims, although his story should have been easy to double-check. For instance, the university’s website provides complete information on the school’s students and their qualifications.

This imbalance of reporting is also not limited to Hartanto‘s case. The fact that Indonesian media owners are dominated by people who are engaged in politics makes the news reported often biased, with a tendency to side with the factions they are aligned with. News content often reflects the political choices of the owners rather than on what people should know.

Two of the most egregious examples are Anindra Ardiansyah Bakrie, the son of Indonesian media and coal tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, who heads VIVAnews and several other television and news outlets, who accused his staff of traitorous behavior during the 2014 election, according to a report by the Nieman Foundation, for running a standard news item on an appearance by Joko Widodo, the ultimate winner of the election. Aburizal Bakrie, his father, was a political rival. Hary Tanoesoedjibjo, who owns Media Nusantara Citra, is said to regularly summon producers to his office toask for favorable coverage of his business interests, according to the same report.  

Slogans such as ‘actual’, “trusted” should not be pinned to a media that spreads news without the need for integrity or responsibility. Nonetheless, a recent BBC poll finds that an enormous 98 percent of Indonesians trust national television news, 91 percent trust national or regional newspapers, 87 percent trust local newspapers and 90 percent trust public broadcast radio. Only 17 percent have stopped using a media source because of a loss of trust.

Despite that, centralization of media ownership is threatening the freedom of speech and political participation Indonesians still enjoy, according to the Neiman Foundation, which quoted a 2012 report by the Jakarta-based think tank Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance, which found that Indonesian media ownership is concentrated in 12 large groups, about half of them controlled by businessmen-turned-politicians.

What then they should do?

Accountability for publication should be taken seriously. The code of ethics of journalism that requires writers, editors, publishers and owners of mass media, requires that unintentional or negligent reportage should no longer be the reason that irncorrect information be continuously covered and published, without anyone feeling the necessity for confirmation and verification.  This code of ethics of journalism is also not limited to news products produced by internal, but also opinion published in newspapers written by external parties

This is what happened to Indonesia’s leading English-language daily newspaper, the Jakarta Post, which carried plagiarized articles written by Anak Agung Banyu Perwita, a professor at President University. After checking, it was reported that he had plagiarized parts of four separate opinion pieces. But because the concerned individual is a respected educator the media apparently felt no need to verify his writings.

Journalism with Integrity

It needs to be said that plagiarism is difficult to catch. Plenty of respected newspapers and other journals in the west have fallen victim to plagiarism as well as elaborate hoaxes. A fake North Korean news site called DRPK News Service has taken in Newsweek, the Washington Post, Reuters, Huffington Post, the Verge and Buzzfeed with fake stories over the past couple of years.  “Fake news” has become a byword of President Donald Trump in countering criticism of some of his more bizarre statements.  The mass media isn’t the only one responsible for controlling the dissemination of invalid news.  is not only by the mass media. As the DRPK example testifies, mistakes are inescapable. Readers bear a responsibility as well.

But the volume of fake news in Indonesia is disturbing. Nonetheless, the growth of social media helps in the oversight process. When you encounter news using false data and information, people can voice their concerns in many ways, such as through social media. Therefore, it is time for people to functions not only as a consumer but also as media watchdog.  In too many cases, nobody did.

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a doctoral candidate at the University of Manchester. Dikanaya Tarahita is an Indonesian  freelance writer. They are regular contributors to Asia Sentinel.