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When disaster strikes, keep calm and listen to ‘Pak’ Sutopo

Gemma Holliani Cahya

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Wed, October 3, 2018  /  09:39 am
When disaster strikes, keep calm and listen to ‘Pak’ Sutopo

National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) spokesperson Sutopo Purwo Nugroho presents a year-end report in a press conference at the agency's headquarters in Jakarta. (JP/Fachrul Sidiq)

The surgery room at Gatot Soebroto Army Hospital was quiet when Sutopo Purwo Nugroho arrived on a Thursday morning in February, except for the continuous buzz of his cell phone. 

The hospital situation was an extraordinary for him, but the buzzing from his phone was not. Sutopo, after all, is a communications officer for one of the country’s most important institutions, and he is very good at his job.

That morning, disaster struck. There had just been a massive landslide in Pasir Panjang village, Salem subdistrict, Brebes regency, Central Java, and dozens of farmers were feared to be buried under the mud. 

And like every time in the past eight years that there has been a disaster somewhere in the nation, journalists have turned to Sutopo, the spokesperson of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), for accurate information. 

Sutopo took a deep breath — the pain in his chest had gotten worse those days, and he could feel it spreading around to the bones in his back. The doctors’ verdict was out a month ago: he had stage four lung cancer.

He had promised his wife that he would not work too much these days, but as he scrolled through the internet and social media, no local authorities had spoken about the deadly disaster.

In his surgical blue gown, he contacted several local authorities in Brebes, gathered information from the field and wrote a 200-word-long official press release from his hospital bed. 

“Five killed, 15 missing and 14 survived in Brebes landslide,” he wrote as the first sentence. 

And before the doctors gave him the anesthetic for the first transarterial chemotherapy infusion, Sutopo had sent the release to more than 1,000 journalists across the archipelago in six WhatsApp groups that he personally managed.

He also gave updates on the situation to his 74,000 followers following his Twitter account, @Sutopo_PN, along with videos and pictures.

Battling hoaxes while doing chemo

Sutopo, affectionally called “Pak Topo”, now must go through chemotherapy once every three weeks. But as he described himself in his Twitter profile, he is a survivor. So he still manages most of the interviews, releases and press conferences on his own.

Earthquake-affected children play in the parking lot of a mosque in Mataram on West Nusa Tenggara province on August 7, 2018, two days after the area was struck by the temblor. Earthquake-affected children play in the parking lot of a mosque in Mataram on West Nusa Tenggara province on August 7, 2018, two days after the area was struck by the temblor. (AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka)

“When a disaster strikes, everyone needs valid information that they can rely on, and that kind of information must come from the BNPB. I always try to give it to the media and public as soon as possible. Because if I can’t deliver that, they will receive the hoaxes and fake news that cause panic, and we don’t want that to happen,” Sutopo told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday. 

Sutopo understands that in the event of a disaster, clear information is crucial. Apart from the official release and updates on social media, he is swift in his responses to reporters’ questions and tackling hoaxes through phone calls and WhatsApp messages. And it can happen at any time of the day or night.

“To deliver valid information to the media and public, I also must act like a reporter — I must call several people in the field to verify the information. They did not send me all of the information just like that; I must compile the data and background. And after that I must write it clearly so people will understand,” he said. 

When the two massive magnitude 6.4 and 7 earthquakes hit West Nusa Tenggara over the past two weeks, Sutopo had just finished his third chemotherapy treatment and immediately held a press conference at the BNPB headquarters for the media regarding the deadly earthquake.

He provides 24/7 updates on his Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, including guiding families concerned about their loved ones trapped on Mount Rinjani or the Gili islands when the earthquake struck.

Since doctors told him that his cancer was terminal, every day when he showed up to public he looked thinner than before. “Doctors told me with chemotherapy and radiation, I probably have one to three years left,” he said. 

Exemplary public officer

Sutopo, however, always shows up to BNPB press conferences.

“I might look strong when I talk in the press conference, but to tell you the truth, nowadays I find it hard to stand for a long time like that. Breathing has also become harder. Lying in bed is actually the best thing for me,” he said recently after one of the Lombok earthquake press conferences.

His dedication to accurate information in times of disaster has won him numerous awards, including the outstanding spokesperson from Serikat Perusahaan Pers in 2013 and the Asia Geospatial Excellence Award 2017 from Geosmart Asia. His institution also got an award for data, something he is passionate about. The BNPB got the best disaster database in Southeast Asia award from the United Nations for Development Program in 2013.

“He is not only informative about any update on disaster conditions, but he is also very resourceful about the data, disaster management, culture, nature's condition, climate, human activities and every background story. He knows a lot of information, and it makes it easier for me to analyze the disaster when writing the story,” Lusia Arumingtyas, a Jakarta-based environmental reporter, told the Post.

Journalists, used to dealing with tight-lipped public communication officers, loved him for his openness. He is not a communication expert by training but he completed his doctoral degree on management of natural resources and environment at Bogor Agricultural University (IPB) in 2010.

His first big responsibility was after the eruption of Mt. Merapi in Central Java in 2010, which killed more than 300 people.

“When Mt. Merapi erupted in 2010, I found it hard to reach out to journalists. It’s hard to send press conference invitations or any updates. There was no WhatsApp in those days, so I used BlackBerry groups. But nowadays, WhatsApp is more effective, and I can even attach videos and pictures in it,” he said. 

The job might be tough, but Sutopo has admitted that he fell in love with the job.

“My background as a researcher and my aspiration to be a writer makes me enjoy this job. Sickness or death is in God’s hands, but while I’m still alive I still want to do my best to serve others,” he said.

On his Twitter account on Thursday, Sutopo posted a picture of him talking to media. "Official information is important to keep the public calm," he said. "Although I had to bear back pain while giving the explanation."

And like in many of his tweets, some netizens will reply and say, “Get well soon Pak. Your explanation has helped the citizens a lot. Keep up the good spirit!” (evi)