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Jakarta Post

View point: When public opinion hijacks courts of law

  • Endy M. Bayuni

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Sun, February 21, 2016   /  08:32 am
View point: When public opinion hijacks courts of law

Jessica is guilty of the murder of her friend Mirna, or so the court of public opinion has ruled.

Long before the case has reached the court of law, even before police have completed their investigation into Jessica Kumala Wongso, the lone suspect in the murder of Mirna Salihin, the people have already held their trial and reached a verdict.

Without the aid of public prosecutors and justices, the people have already heard the testimony of experts sharing their views with the public in TV interviews and social media.

The people, acting as the justice in this court of public opinion, have heard enough to rule that it was Jessica who put the cyanide in the coffee that Mirna Salihin drank when the two friends, both 27 years old, met at a cafe in Jakarta on that fateful day in early January.

 Jessica had her day in this court, repeatedly pleading her innocence before TV cameras. Her side of the story is, however, irrelevant. Instead, her body language and facial expression gave her away, according to expert witnesses. She'€™s guilty.

Thanks to television and social media, the Jessica story has shifted from a murder case that police are investigating into a real-life drama story of two young Indonesian women, both foreign-educated and with a taste for the high life.

Edi Dermawan Salihin, the father of Mirna, campaigning to pin the murder on Jessica, shared text message exchanges between the two women to suggest that they were more than just friends.

Murder, love and sex make the perfect plot for a novel.

Three weeks into the drama, police nabbed Jessica at a hotel, where she had been hiding, not so much from the law as from journalists searching for more juicy details of her life.

The evidence police have is circumstantial at best. They have no evidence and no witnesses to show that Jessica had poisoned the coffee.

Police willingly share the meager evidence they have with the public as they carry out their investigation. Officers have appeared almost every day feeding the frenzied media with information, scant as it is, helping to keep this drama last as long as it can.

Motives? Who needs them, police insist. For good measure, they sent Jessica to a mental hospital for a few days. The court of public opinion quickly drew its own conclusions.

Jessica is the latest of many celebrated cases that have been tried in the courts of public opinion, where the people are the prosecutors, the judges and executioners all at once.

The media, and the government and the police at times, happily feed the information that the people need to hear to build their case and reach their verdict.

In January, the government and police launched a vicious public campaign against the Fajar Nusantara Movement (Gafatar), a cult movement seeking an alternative to modern urban life for its members, accusing them of all sorts of things, from blasphemy and spreading an ideology dangerous to national security to abduction.

The media lapped up these government statements, and public opinion went along with the government'€™s insistence that Gafatar was dangerous, even more so than the terrorist group Islamic State (IS) movement blamed for the deadly attacks in Jakarta last month.

The rest of the Gafatar story stuck to the script now familiar in cases of attacks against minority groups: The public take over the case, hold their trial and reach a verdict. When possible, they execute too.

A mob of more than 5,000 people attacked a Gafatar community in West Kalimantan in January. Police evacuated the Gafatar members, mostly women, elderly people and children '€” hardly threats to national security '€” to safety before letting the mob vandalize and raze property.

Police later arrested the Gafatar leaders even though they had committed no crime. The real criminals, the mob and whoever had mobilized them, were untouched.

Gafatar'€™s story follows similar earlier attacks against religious minorities like the Ahmadi and Shia communities, with government and religious leaders helping to drive public opinion against these groups.

The current antigay sentiments too can be traced to the government, including Vice President Jusuf Kalla and many Cabinet ministers, as they seek to purge the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from Indonesia.

If their statements are to be taken seriously, LGBTs are now banned from government university campuses, the civil service and TV and showbiz.

The people'€™s tribunal is hijacking the courts of justice more and more, and often, with the government'€™s prodding, tragically, with violent and even deadly consequences.

The court of public opinion hardly dispenses justice; verdicts are often in favor of those with bullying powers, including the government and the police. Social and traditional media are part of this people'€™s court hearing process, often uncritically playing up the bully'€™s positions simply because that'€™s what the public want to hear.

This trend of people taking the law into their own hands reflects the low confidence they have in the legal system. Recurring reports of '€œcourt mafia'€ selling justice have not helped.

Surely, the courts of law should rebuild their reputation as the last bastion of justice, as is vital to a functioning democracy. Without public faith in the court of justice, the nation, as we are witnessing today, is veering toward anarchy.

The writer is the editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post

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