IFJ Blog: “Online threats are as dangerous as those in real life”

“I was just doing my job,” Indonesian journalist Febriana Firdaus said, recalling a difficult situation she experienced in early June 2016 when her Twitter feeds were suddenly flooded with tens of angry comments.

Ms. Firdaus was covering an “anti-communist symposium” where retired senior military officials and leaders of Islamic hard-line groups had gathered to block efforts made by several civil society groups to push for resolution and justice for the victims of the 1965-66 massacre. 

The killings, following a coup attempt in September 1965, had claimed the lives of at least 500,000 alleged communists. 

The government blamed Indonesia’s Communist Party for the coup attempt and used it to disparage anyone associated with it. 

Febriana Firdaus was one of the many reporters covering the symposium, and at the time was working for Rappler Indonesia as a multimedia reporter, “It was mandatory for me to do live updates on Facebook and Twitter,” said Ms. Firdaus, who is now a freelance journalist.

She constantly updated her Facebook and Twitter feeds during the event. One of her Facebook posts that went viral was her transcript of a statement made by a retired Army general, who got Marxism muddled up. 

“Marxism is Aristotelian. So a Marxist doesn’t believe that the universe was created. That is to say, they believe the universe is present in itself. So it’s clear that they are atheists as they don’t believe in God,” reported by The Jakarta Post.

The statement went viral online, with many ridiculing the retired general. The next day, several symposium members banned Ms. Firdaus from covering the event.

Not only in the “offline” realm, Ms. Firdaus, who dons a hijab, was also attacked in the online sphere, especially on Twitter with many users accusing her of being a communist. One tweet read, “Look out!! Roaming around us [women with] fake hijab, they are actually communist’s minions, LGBT lovers!” Another one bullied and accused her of being a reporter who works “by order and for money.”

Some attacks were also coming from the Islamic Defender Front, often describe as a hardline group that often attacked bars serving alcohol during Ramadan. The group revealed Ms. Firdaus’s identity by tweeting her photo and said “Rappler Indonesia via its reporter Ms. Firdaus is very active attacking anti-communists parties, including the military and police and mass organizations.”

In order to deal with the harassment, Ms. Firdaus went on to talk to a social media expert who suggested that she ignore the tweets and take a break from Twitter and Facebook. “The attacks continued for around a month,” she said. “It was difficult for me, I was afraid. Online threats are as dangerous as those in real life.”

The bullies slowly disappeared, but still, she said, she sometimes feels the fear of being threatened or bullied online. Ms. Firdaus said she wants every journalist to be more aware of the seriousness of online threats or intimidation, and how they could affect reporters’ coverage. 

“Journalists should never be afraid to express their opinions or tweet their stories online,” she said. 

Ms. Firdaus now hopes that Indonesian journalists will truly be given their rights to freely cover sensitive issues such as the 1965-1966 massacre or issues around Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights. 

“The current regime hasn’t provided us with a guarantee of protection and safety when we cover such topics,” she said. 

Ms. Firdaus also hopes that Indonesian newsrooms will work toward supporting journalists in exercising their rights in the digital space, “When people attack us online, please give us guidance on what and what not do. Many of us do not have the knowledge and online sophistication.”


Interview with Febriana Firdaus by Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI) Indonesia