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Bali teenager used as political pawn in domestic politics

Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia, Greg Moriarty, has been working to secure the release of the 14 year old, amid huge media interest. AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka

The arrest of a 14 year old Australian boy accused of possessing marijuana in Bali has provoked a media storm. The Australian Ambassador to Indonesia says the case is his “top priority”, and even the Prime Minister has become involved - Julia Gillard rang the teenager in prison on Sunday, and assured him everything is being done to secure his release.

It could be weeks or even months before the boy knows his fate, but his lawyers hope he may be sentenced to a drug rehabilitation program, which he could undertake in Australia.

But is the media outrage over his arrest justified? Has Julia Gillard damaged diplomatic relations with Indonesia? The Conversation spoke to Adrian Vickers, Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Sydney.

Is the outrage from the Australian media justified in this case?

There is a media-generated, over-the-top interest in such matters. Certainly it’s an awful thing for a teenage boy to be in jail, that’s one issue, but the reaction of the media cycle is disproportionate. Talkback radio generates a certain amount of interest and news editors take their cues from that. Suddenly journalists have to jump on the next plane to Bali. I would regard it as a form of hysteria - it’s an over-reaction when you consider the response to Australians who have been caught in legal problems or imprisoned in other places. We can compare it to the plight of Indonesians in jail in Australia. There are thought to be around fifty teenagers held here by the criminal courts, and in immigration detention. One man even died after effectively being detained in his own boat, unable to step onto Australian land after being found guilty of illegal fishing.

Is there an element of hypocrisy here?

There are hundreds of Indonesians, mainly poor people from the east, in Australian jails. Some are imprisoned for illegal fishing, others have been caught up in people smuggling, and a proportion of these are under-age, although the Australian authorities have been accused of fudging the age tests.

In the case of the teenager in jail in Bali, the news editors are being very irresponsible. They’re certainly not doing the boy any favours. The best thing would be to remain low-key and let the diplomats do their work - the local consular staff are more than capable. It’s also caught up with domestic politics - there’s no need for the Foreign Minister and Prime Minister to start calling the jail. Or for the Foreign Minister to order the Ambassador to drop everything and work on this case.

Was Julia Gillard’s phone call to the boy helpful in terms of the diplomatic case being made?

Imagine if it was the Indonesian President calling up a prisoner in Australia, and trying to put pressure on our legal system - there would be outrage here. Indonesians are just bemused by the whole situation. If you look at it rationally there is no need for her to be involved. It’s a problem when foreign policy is dictated by domestic politics.

Was she naive to get involved?

There is a history of domestic policies and showmanship getting in the way of, and in some ways dictating, foreign policy. It goes back to the Howard era, particularly the handling of the refugee issue. Somehow the Australian government has felt free to grandstand in Southeast Asia since then.

There are many reports of corruption in the Indonesian police. Is it endemic?

You can’t get away from that fact. Indonesians themselves are trying to do something about it. This drug scam has been the situation there for at least 25 years. Police are known to send out drug dealers with marijuana and then try to get a cut of the proceeds and an arrest. It’s nothing new. I guess everyone who travels to places like Bali knows about it, but a naive young boy isn’t going to pay much attention to the signs that warn about the dangers of drugs. It’s not unusual - there are a lot of places in the world where corruption is a problem, but we don’t see the same coverage of the problem in, say, China.

Is there an inherent racism in the Australian media, and public, towards Indonesia?

Certainly there’s unfailingly negative coverage of Indonesia here. There are some very good journalists who cover the beat, but it’s very difficult for them to get their stories in newspapers or on TV. All we get is terrorism, animal slaughters and drugs - even if you compare it to the coverage of China, let alone Europe. For some reason the stories of Australians in Chinese jails don’t receive the same level of reporting. It’s not proportional. Underlying stereotypes are brought out, and it’s disrespectful to Indonesia. This year’s Lowy Poll which looked at Australian perceptions of the region found a large number of respondents think Indonesia is still governed by the military. These are outdated perceptions, and that is down to the media.

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