Int'l News Coverage of Iraq Stokes Anti-US Sentiment, Risk of Terror

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Concern that news reporting on Iraq is stirring up anti-U.S. sentiment and contributing to the potential terror threat facing Americans in Indonesia relates to media coverage in general -- and not specifically to Indonesian media, according to the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.

If anything, media in Indonesia was generally "more tasteful and more circumspect" in its coverage of the Iraq war and the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib than many American and other media, an embassy spokesman said Wednesday.

A message issued by the embassy at the weekend warned that "a convergence of local and international factors" had increased the potential threat to Americans in Indonesia.

Those factors included "anti-American sentiment stirred up by media portrayals of U.S. actions in Iraq."

The embassy spokesman said the message referred to international media reporting on Iraq and "any sort of emotions that that may provoke."

Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, has around 200 newspapers, 11 television stations and up to 1,000 radio stations. Experts say they cover a broad spectrum of political viewpoints.

"The Indonesian media as a whole reports accurately and objectively about U.S. policies," the spokesman said. "There are only a couple of newspapers that go overboard."

One exception was when public figures' "mischaracterization of" U.S. policies was reported on.

"The country as a whole has different media that are biased in one way or another, but they have a niche market of people who read those, much as in any country with a free press," he said.

Prof. David Hill of Australia's Murdoch University, a specialist in Southeast Asia media, said Wednesday Indonesians had a "very diverse" media and it would not be accurate to say that they were "only getting a kind of monotone [view]."

Most Indonesian media companies would not have their own foreign correspondents, and would get international feed from organizations like Reuters, CNN and other U.S. networks, he said.

Damien Kingsbury, an Indonesian specialist at Deakin University in Australia, said print media was influential in Indonesia, although more so among opinion-leaders and decision-makers.

Radio was the primary source of news for most Indonesians, although television had increasingly taken its place over the past decade, even in remote areas, where viewers often watch TV in communal settings.

Another source of information on international affairs in rural areas were local Muslim imams or clerics, he said.

"If you're talking about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terror, a lot of Indonesians would get that from places like their local mosque."

The imams would get their information from print, radio and TV, and from Muslim information networks, and then would tend to filter the news through "a pre-established world view."

Critical of U.S.

Dr. Tim Behrend of the University of Auckland said Indonesian media varied widely, from those with a liberal, democratic perspective to others with "an Islamic ideological perspective."

The Internet is also used, but less than 1.5 percent of Indonesians have computer hookups at homes. The Internet can be accessed in public places and it "tends to be used [as a news source] by people who are quite politicized."

Behrend said most political news in recent months has focused on Indonesian politics, with last month's legislative elections followed by presidential elections coming up in July.

But Iraq has also been an "extremely important issue."

"It's not [regarded as] an entirely foreign issue, because many Muslims, one might say the majority, consider that the United States is engaged in war against Islam, or a conspiracy to keep Muslim states weak."

Behrend said Indonesian media opinion would in general be critical of U.S. foreign policy, "whether Islamist-critical or internationalist-critical."

"I wouldn't say it's any more slanted that CBS, ABC, CNN coming out of the States, except in the very self-consciously Islamist publications, where everything is an American-Zionist conspiracy."

Kompas, the newspaper of record, "isn't a ravingly anti-American, anti-West newspaper, but it is critical of U.S. policy," he said.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow