Why does anyone or any organization call a news conference in the first place, instead of merely sending out a news release?
The reason for calling a news conference, for most people who are media savvy, will be that it gives the spokesperson the chance to deliver his messages effectively and to be able to explain and clarify any questions that the media can have.
The caveat here is that the spokesperson should be well-trained to deliver his messages and able to answer the most difficult of questions in a manner that is credible, authoritative and likable. If the spokesperson does not have such skills then its best not to expose him to journalists.
Being credible is a challenge to many politicians, government servants and corporations. Their institutions have built a culture where they communicate through institution-speak: the self-centered, which-kool-aid-are-they-drinking kind of speech in which they seem to be perfect or at least can do now wrong and that the public is eminently interested in their accomplishments.
The public generally does not care, of course, unless the spokesperson says something that connects with, or is relevant to, them. And if they feel that someone is trying to take them out for a spin they react with anger and criticisms.
The journalists, who act as the intermediary who must filter and process the information given by spokespersons and render them into a news story worthy of the public’s attention are even more skeptical. Who wouldn’t be, if faced by an endless stream of incompetent spokespersons and PR Flacks trying to pitch them newsless and self-interested stories day in and day out?
Faced with such skepticism the spokesperson has to perform to expectations and sure something new or something important or face their wrath, in the form of critical news reports and comments.
So it is strange that the President’s PR minders have decided to recommend to him to call a news conference when they are not prepared to say anything important or new, and when the President has obviously not been trained at all in the art and science of being a spokesperson.
And to top it all the minders tried to stage-manage the whole event with predetermined questions, as if anyone, especially the skeptical journalists, would be taken in and think that SBY is a forthcoming president.
Instead of enhancing his image the minders have once again degraded it. Which begs the question: which kool aid fountain have they been drinking from?
It was a rare chance, albeit rehearsed, for journalists to ask questions directly of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but the nationally televised Q&A on Monday night still came off as stilted and emasculated.
Preparations for the event, which was initially scheduled to take place last Friday, began a week earlier when journalists assigned to the State Palace were asked to submit questions they wanted the president to answer.
All of the questions were screened by Julian Aldrin Pasha, the president’s spokesman, who asked two journalists to tone down their questions and rejected a query on the controversial Bank Century bailout.
“Please use soft words and don’t mention names,” he said to one of the reporters.
“Don’t ask that question,” he told another. “The president will address it directly on another occasion, but not tonight.”
That the president’s answers had been prepared long before journalists could pose them on Monday night was evident when Yudhoyono consulted a bundle of notes after someone asked him a question about national debt.
But even with all the screening and preparation, observers noted, Yudhoyono’s answers were tepid and lacked any insight.
Ikrar Nusa Bhakti, a political analyst from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), pointed out that when Yudhoyono spoke about the talk he had with Muhammad Nazaruddin shortly before the former Democratic Party treasurer fled the country, he revealed nothing the public did not already know.
Yudhoyono said he asked Nazaruddin to resign due to the corruption allegations against him, but that Nazaruddin, who is now on trial for bid-rigging, refused.
“It’s a shame that he didn’t go into detail about it, because this is a really important issue that is still unfolding,” Ikrar said. “I thought that when Yudhoyono wanted to do the Q&A he was going to address some urgent points that we didn’t know about, but it was all just stale news.”
Critics were also not satisfied with the president’s answer about mounting allegations of human rights abuses by security forces.
In his seven years as president, Yudhoyono said, Indonesia has “never experienced any incident of human rights violations that could be considered serious.”
That contradicts findings by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) about gross rights abuses in a deadly crackdown on a peaceful protest in Papua last year, as well as indications of violations in a host of clashes over land disputes across the country.
Yudhoyono said that in the latter cases, including in Bima, West Nusa Tenggara, and Mesuji, Lampung, he was fully committed to resolving all claims of rights violations.
“I stress that there will be no leniency and the cases will be resolved,” he said. “The government is responding swiftly to prevent future clashes.”
His oft-repeated call for a resolution also cropped up in his response to the standoff over the GKI Yasmin church in Bogor that the local administration has continued to seal off in violation of a Supreme Court ruling.
“I hope the regional leaders, the mayor and governor, can fully resolve this case,” Yudhoyono said. “What’s important is that the case is resolved so that it doesn’t drag on for years.”
The beleaguered church congregation has been forced to hold services, including for Christmas and Easter, on the street or in parishioners’ homes since 2008 as a result of the state’s illegal seizure of their property.
Yudhoyono said he was committed to ending the dispute “so that Christians, along with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians and others, can practice their faith in an orderly, calm and peaceful manner.”
Sympathy for the FPI
On the issue of banning the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the notorious hard-line organization known for its intimidation of and attacks on minority groups, the president’s answer was just as noncommittal.
“Organizations in Indonesia are allowed to operate on the basis of freedom of speech and freedom of action,” he said.
“Any organization that violates the laws must face due legal process, with no exceptions.”
The FPI has frequently raided stores selling alcoholic drinks and destroyed property as part of its self-professed moral crusade. Its members have rarely faced prosecution for these acts.
Yudhoyono defended the FPI’s right to organize, saying he was concerned about a recent development in which members of the indigenous Dayak tribe in Central Kalimantan took over a local airport to block the arrival of FPI members.
“Why should others be allowed to carry out their activities while our brothers in the FPI are forbidden?,” he said.
He said he discussed the incident with Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi, hoping to determine whether the 1985 Law on Mass Organizations should be amended to prevent that kind of protest. He also called on regional officials to improve security conditions to avoid more “acts of provocation” such as the one against the FPI.
Iberamsjah, a political analyst from the University of Indonesia, said he was disappointed with a lack of meaningful or informative answers from the president.
Given the quality of Yudhoyono’s responses, Iberamsjah questioned why the president would even need to prepare for the Q&A beforehand.
He said the presence of the full cabinet at the Q&A made the event too formal, saying it could have been more down-to-earth as a gathering simply between Yudhoyono and the journalists.
“Just look at Barack Obama,” Iberamsjah said.
“At press conferences, he’s rarely accompanied by a complete set of ministers because he has high self-confidence.”