Australia has been gripped by the drug-smuggling trial of Schapelle Corby over the past few months. Not a day has gone by without her face splashed on the front page of a newspaper nor without repeated screenings on the news channels of her wading through the media scrum outside a Balinese courtroom.
But since the verdict of the case has been announced, the mood of Corby’s supporters has turned hysterical, with reports of people attempting to withdraw the money they donated to tsunami appeals and plans to boycott travel to Bali and Indonesia.
A talkback radio host has likened Indonesians to monkeys, a term also used by some Australians posting comments on news websites. The delivery of a biological agent to the Indonesian embassy in Canberra together with a highly abusive note has also been linked to the Corby case.
Two elements of this case - the role of the media in covering the case and the overt and subtle racism and xenophobia arising from anger about the verdict - should be considered. A recent Mediawatch on the ABC highlighted some of these issues, such as the repeated mantra that the Indonesian justice system was unfair and placed the burden of proof on defendants instead of on the prosecutors.
There were comparisons made between Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, the alleged mastermind of the Bali bombings in October 2002, who received a 30-month prison term, and Corby’s 20-year sentence.
The mainstream media sensationalised the story; some were quick to call Corby by her first name - Schapelle - and they often cited the 90 per cent support they claim she has among the Australian population.
What is disappointing is that the media organisations that broadcasted or printed such claims deliberately chose to omit certain facts. There has been little mention about the nature of the Indonesian legal system, why it is different from Australia’s with its European roots.
Mediawatch also pointed out the death penalties handed down to the men who carried out the Bali bombings, Amorosi, Samudra and Mukhlas in a similar Bali courtroom, were not mentioned. More surprising is the public seems to have forgotten that these sentences were well-received in Australia when they were meted out just two years ago.
These are just some examples of many incidents where the media coverage of the Corby case has breached the Media Alliance’s Code of Ethics. Instead of producing content that is honest, balanced and accountable, some elements of the media have used their privileged role of informing the public to whip up public sentiment in a bid to pull in higher ratings or gain more readership.
The media consequently becomes nothing more than a propaganda tool, publishing or broadcasting information that depicts complex issues in simple black and white absolutes. Corby, in this instance, is just another commodity used to gain ratings and ignored when interest in the case is no longer strong.
Stories about Corby’s father’s conviction for the possession of drugs and her brother’s imprisonment in Queensland also emerged, although they had no bearing on her situation, and they represented another attempt to milk the financial benefits of covering the story.
Simultaneously this distorted content has been used by some here in Australia to incite racial hatred, promote ignorance about other cultures and fuel xenophobia. Indonesians and Indonesia represent the “other”, the feared unknown that is “uncivilised” and out to “get” innocent Australians (“us”).
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