READING “The Elements of Journalism” is just like reading a holy book for journalist. It is hard to criticize the book as it contains a number of practical and relevant examples for the journalists to fulfill their noble mission. Instead, as I learn to be a good journalist, those elements are strengthening what I have been doing for several years.
Yet, I find the first three elements are the most critical and challenging for journalist in conflict region. This was happened to me when I cover the peace development in Aceh post conflict for Aceh Feature Service. For sure, to convey the truth to the public by employing verification principle is painstaking, time consuming, and, sometimes, it is too risky. It is no wonder if some of newspapers and news agencies would prefer to obtain releases and information only from officials.
For instance, in July 2006, a year after the peace settlement between the Aceh Free Movement (GAM) and Government of Indonesia, the Indonesian military shot to death a villager in Paya Bakong village, North Aceh province. Despite the witnesses, local newspapers were only quote the military spokesperson regarding the incident.
In order to obtain accurate information and evidences, three days after the incident, I went to the location, which is near to Exxon Mobil Company gas plant. It took times and hard efforts prior to interviews several eyewitnesses, a victim, and a spokesperson for the Indonesian military. I wrote the report for several days. And a few weeks after it was printed in a local media, the Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM) and National Commission for Human Rights conducted an investigation to find the perpetrators.
In subsequent year, I wrote an in-depth story in regard with human right abuse by a group of local police in Bireuen regency. The police accused villagers in Tanjong Beuridi district that they have disrespected bendera merah-putih, the Indonesian national flag. Again, most of local papers only cited chief of police in Bireuen on their front page.
Several days after the incident, I came to Tanjong Beuridi to do the reportage. Villagers were first reluctant to give any information related to the incident, because the local media has wrongly published the real story. The media, according to the villagers, obscured the truth by only citing the police as the major source.
With the help of local friends in Bireuen working for local human rights organization, besides talking to eyewitnesses and several victims to get evidences, I interviewed the Tanjung Beuridi village authorities and the Chief who was on the location while the incident occurred. Two months after my story was published, the chief of the police was demoted.
Such incident happened in several times. As I learned from it, truth is expensive while rumors are cheap in conflict region such Aceh. Despite the peace accord reached between the Indonesian government and the Aceh Free Movement in August 2005, violence continues to occur in remote villages and can erupt at any time due in part to the lack of verified information and rumors.
In my view, journalists in conflict region has heavier burden than in other region. Despite their daily work to provide variety of news, the journalists in conflict region must contribute to enhance and sustain the peace development by applying and upholding, at least, the first of three elements of the “Elements of Journalism”. They must put the truth as their first obligation. According to the authors, “this journalistic truth is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts.” (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001)
Also, I definitely agree that every journalist also must put their loyalty to the general public, in particular the victims of conflict. This element is in line to the fifth element. “Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.” On the other hand, it is also significant for the journalist in conflict region. Unless they are publishing accurate and reliable facts, they could be reckoned as enemy for each party of the conflict.
In the end, only by providing the truth – reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context, the lawmaker, government, and the society at large could have appropriate and accurate decision. END