The Soeharto saga and the state of the media

Emmy Fitri, Jakarta

Mass media's uncanny infatuation with former president Soeharto continues as details of his urine, blood pressure and oxygen intake steal newspaper headlines, television prime time news and all-day radio talk shows.

The news saturation on the ailing Soeharto in the past two weeks however only confirmed one thing -- how the country, especially the media, still dwell in the past, making Soeharto a cult that must be worshipped like a dying angel about to depart.

The former leader was rushed to Pertamina Hospital for anemia, kidney and heart problems on Jan. 4.

The media craze has reached a point where many newsrooms "hospitalize" their journalists at the hospital where Soeharto lies in bed.

A television producer said he wanted to preserve the country's history and record everything possible about Soeharto for posterity.

"Decades from now, our grandchildren will want to know how he died, like we all today want to know how Sukarno died," he said, referring to the country's founding president who died alone under house arrest in 1970. Few records were kept about Sukarno's illness; many said it was a tragic one, as the former president battled his ailment without proper care.

Perhaps, it is always wiser to tell how he had lived.

Soeharto is a different case.

There is no doubt. Out there, the public must want to know how Soeharto's doing, who has been visiting him and who his friends and foes are.

It's a mesmerizing story to read and see how a group of people hailing from a remote village in Yogyakarta plead with security personnel to enter Soeharto's room and pray at his bedside.

Human interest stories are always intriguing to read or see, especially if they relate to prominent figures. But, unless a majority of the population are knowledgeable, for the public in general it can be only a jerk to provide clinical updates for every single measure or decision made by the doctors.

Suddenly readers, listeners and viewers have no choice but to quote medical terms and daily talk about Soeharto's insides.

Here is one mind-boggling example of the television coverage. While reading her notebook and blocking a crowd of fellow journalists, a TV reporter looking at the camera said, "As of 9 p.m., Pak Harto's hemoglobin level has reached 9.8 and his blood pressure is 110. So, Pak Harto's condition is better tonight although (he's) still critical like yesterday." She ended her report with a wide grin, leaving at least one viewer's jaw dropped.

She precisely made it sound like she was reporting on the water level at Manggarai sluice gate with Jakartans bracing for floods during rainy season.

Adding to the agony, in the morning, Soeharto's comical face would appear on the front pages of newspapers with his kidney, lungs, and liver rendered with a graphic of syringes and details about what was wrong with him internally.

Although not sensational, that kind of graphic daily coverage on the same page in the last two weeks is a sore to common sense.

It's understandable that in this information age no media outlet would want to waste a chance to get fresh, fast news on any kind of event, especially on a controversial figure whose persona has turned into a man-made prophet -- both untouchable and full of mystique.

And Soeharto is a media darling. The former ruler resigned at the height of bloody students protests and popular rage over alleged corruption, collusion and nepotism practices throughout his three-decade administration.

The retired five-star army general was also accused of having knowledge of a series of human rights violations happening during his terms in office.

For some groups in the country, the anger apparently has not subsided as Soeharto remains untouchable. From time to time, hence, the public is supplied with the illusion and drama of inquiry, and trying Soeharto has become one of the unfinished agenda items of the 1998 reform movement. Seeking justice against Soeharto is elusive here, regardless of whoever the current president is.

Soeharto's public appearance then became a news magnet for the media. His many fans and die-hard supporters may need this update to ensure their hero is doing fine. Others jump in to let out their anger for unsettled cases whenever the media post a piece of good or bad news on Soeharto.

Like it or not Soeharto is a former president who deserves treatment and privileges, including 40 specialists taking care of him at the hospital. But he is also a mere human whose insides need not become public. The public, too, need not be convinced in such a way to believe how sick Soeharto is.

Wait a minute ... as this article is written, this radio news flash is heard: Soeharto's ventilator is to be removed and doctors said they found candida fungus in his lungs.

Gone are the days where doctors must religiously abide by the Hippocratic Oath, requiring them to save lives, not to wash patients' bowels in public and so on.

Gone are the days when the hospital was a quiet place where ailing people were laid to rest to battle illness. But most of all, gone are the days where journalists must practice common sense in their work.

The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post. She can be reached at emmy@thejakartapost.com.


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