May 21-22 riot from the journalists' perspectives

May 21-22 riot from the journalists' perspectives
Martinus Adinata

From staying out of the harm's way, escaping from the protesters' crowd, to stay focused during the reportage. Find out the stories behind the Jakarta riots from the journalists' point of views

After the General Election Commissions (KPU)’s vote calculation was published, Tuesday 21st May, the tension in various regions in Indonesia began to rise. Police barricades and anti-riot tactical vehicles became common sights in a number of vital spots in Jakarta, especially around the offices of KPU and Election Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu).

Since noon, protestors who were not satisfied with KPU’s calculation result had gathered within the vicinity of Bawaslu’s office in Thamrin area and despite the decision of many offices around the Thamrin area to close due to rising tension, that afternoon’s demonstration was actually quite in order. But after dark, things are escalated rapidly.

“Around 9pm, protestors attempted to break through the barricades and were getting more passionate with their orations. There was pushing and shoving, but the situation remained under control until the mass disbanded at midnight,” said Mas Agung Wilis Yudha Baskoro, The Jakarta Globe's Photojournalist, who was covering around Thamrin.

“Then, bigger chaos happened. The disbanded masses came back to Bawaslu. Police officers were back on their feet and were forced to push the masses away from Sarinah, which caused masses to retreat to their small bases in several spots, such as Sabang Road, Tanah Abang, Petamburan, and Jati Baru.”

As dawn entered on Wednesday (22/5), instead of calming down, the riot spread to multiple locations. A number of cars parked in front of the Mobile Brigade dormitory at KS Tubun road were vandalized and burned, and the unrest extended from Tanah Abang to Jati Baru, West Jakarta.

“Protestors were rioting and it was chaotic in there (Jati Baru). For my safety, I retreated and moved to KS Tubun Road, but the situation there was no different,” said Yudha, depicting the events that went down on Wednesday morning.

“I managed to run to a group of police officers, which allowed me to conduct my coverage a little more safely though my eyes were hurting from several doses of tear gas.”

The picture that went viral and facts on the field
Behind the scenes of the heated field, Yudha managed to capture a special moment, which became one of the highlights of the May 21-22 report. He managed to snap a picture of two National Police's Brigade Mobile (Brimob) members resting while leaning their backs against each other. While one closed his eyes, so as not to miss a chance to rest for a little, the other one used the moment to video call his son.

                                                                                                              The viral photo (Yudha Baskoro / The Jakarta Globe)

“I chatted with the officer facing me for a while. But then, he started to close his eyes, so I thought he must have been sleepy. Then, the officer behind him took out his cellular phone and started a video call with his son. I simply thought this was a good moment, so I took the picture,” explained Yudha.

“I stepped further away from them as to not disturb their resting moments. After the tarawih prayer, suddenly the masses in front of us started to deliver their orations again, which ended the video call putting the two officers on guard again.”

The photo Yudha captured then quickly went viral, with people showing their appreciation to the officers’ hard work in handling the May 21-22 event. Moreover, this riot occurred during the fasting month, which meant everyone had to control their hunger and emotion in that holy month.

“The story about this presidential election protest is not only about political contestation or about winning or losing, but there is also the humanitarian side that we cannot forget,” said Yudha.

The coverage on May 21-22 also produced a number of other stories that the people may not know. One of which was the facts on the field observed by Bisnis Indonesia's Journalist, Lalu Rahadian.

“All the facts on the field were already written and published on the news. But what we could not forget was how the masses roamed freely in the shopping area of Sarinah and the Djakarta Theater building. There was no restriction from the police for people entering these two buildings, even though they were not operational on that day,” said Lalu.

Meanwhile, Yudha chose to highlight the incident of an ambulance caught transporting stones that became the weapons of choice for protestors in confronting the police.

“People still believed that the officers were being mean when they broke the ambulance’s glass and beat the ambulance officer. This was actually because the ambulance was carrying stones and not acting neutral, meaning they only helped protestors and used medical reasons to mask their actions,” added Yudha. “Besides, many of the protestors were not even from Jakarta.”

A journalist from, Verryana Novita Ningrum (known as Imel), had a different experience. Imel saw with her own eyes how people on site were easily provoked.

"Many children in the alleyways joined in on the riot. They brandished machetes or other sharp weapons to anyone who passed through,” said Imel. "Yes, they were just chiming in on a whim. Perhaps when they saw a riot, they joined in and threw stones, despite not knowing what was happening."

The importance of self-control
When going to report a chaotic situation, journalists must pay attention to their safety. During the May 21-22 coverage, there were many stories of journalists being the target of the masses’ rage. From mass persecution on television journalists deemed to be biased in their news, journalists’ vehicles becoming the victim of arson by a number of unknown perpetrators, to violence suffered by some journalists.

"I came after dawn to Petamburan, around 5.30 am. When I arrived, things were chaotic. Hordes of people were throwing Molotov cocktails towards the Mobile Brigade officers in KS Tubun Road,” said Imel.

"All day things were a mess. I probably got exposed by the tear gas more than seven times. It was a frenzy. This was the first time I cover a riot that was so chaotic.”

As the day goes by, things just kept on escalating. Imel saw more people coming in. She also saw a number of people arming themselves with bamboo and other weapons, such as fireworks, firecrackers, and stones, which was retaliated by tear gasses from the police.

The 21-22 May Demonstration (Verryana Novita Ningrum / Private Doc)
                                                                                               21-22 May Demonstration (Verryana Novita Ningrum / Private Doc)

In this circumstance, the journalist identity is like a double-edged sword. If you declare yourself as a journalist, it might cause you to be the target of the masses’ rage, since they think certain media is not being neutral in their election coverage. Meanwhile, if you are not claiming as a journalist, you can also be considered as a part of the rioters by the police.

"It was better not to wear a journalist ID when there were rioters nearby," said Imel.

While Imel was relatively lucky enough to stay out of the harm's way, Yudha might not so as he experienced a direct confrontation with rioters. 

“My camera was broken when covering in front of Bawaslu. There was a protestor who did not like reporters, so he screamed at me, and not long after, his friends were surrounding me, about to beat me up,” said Yudha, explaining his experience. “I survived only because my fellow journalists came and rescued me.”

These were kind of threats that made journalists must be able to analyse the situation and prioritize their own safety. In fact, the heated condition turned the emotion of protestors and police officers alike unstable. So, journalists must be able to control themselves to not be stuck in the midst of the chaos. The Producer of Al Jazeera, Ikhsan Raharjo, who was also on the field at that time, emphasized the importance of self-control of every journalist on the field.

“Know the psychological aspect of the mass when covering and don’t force yourself to take pictures,” said Ikhsan. “In the May 22 case, there was a television journalist who was threatened when he got too close to take a picture of police officers beating up protestors. In a situation like this, the emotion of both the police and protestors were rocketing, so we should avoid exacerbating the situation. We should take pictures in a relatively safe distance.”

So, what is the biggest challenge for covering these types of situation?

“The biggest challenge is to survive,” said Yudha, “Whilst also producing non-judgemental news.”

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