Sutopo: Indonesia mourns disaster spokesman and fake news warrior

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There has been an outpouring of grief and tributes in Indonesia after the death of national disaster spokesperson Sutopo Nugroho. As the BBC’s former Indonesia editor Rebecca Henschke writes, “Father Topo” played a vital role in a country facing twin battles of disasters and fake news.

Sutopo Nugroho’s last tweet on his much used account was of a map of Indonesia, one of the most disaster-prone countries on earth.

There was no caption, just an image of the world’s largest archipelago that sits along the Ring of Fire, its hundreds of islands dotted with volcanoes.

He would have spent hours staring at that map, understanding what area would be affected by an earthquake, where a tsunami could possibly hit, or who needed to move to be safe from a volcanic eruption.

And then getting the information out.

Before he burst onto the scene, the national disaster agency in Indonesia, the BPBD, was at times criticised for being late with information and providing often cryptic details about the many disasters to hit the country.

Sutopo revolutionised the role and become an almost 24-hour source of accurate information.

‘Iconic and inspirational’

The 49-year-old, affectionately known as Pak (Father) Topo, was the voice of the agency for nine years. But it was really in 2018, when Indonesia had one of its worst years in a decade in terms of disasters, that he rose to prominence.

At a time when he was battling his own disaster, lung cancer, he single-handedly provided constant updates on two tsunamis, numerous major volcanic eruptions, landslides and earthquakes which all hit Indonesia last year.

“He was iconic, he set a high example that motivated all of us that worked under him and with him. He inspired us,” says Rita Rosita, who worked with him at the agency.

“He always told us to put our heart into our work. If you do your job with passion and dedication then it doesn’t matter how hard a task [is], it will become easy. That’s what he always stressed to us.”

Sutopo built up and fostered a close relationship with journalists – he saw us as allies in getting accurate information out. Even from his hospital bed, he wrote press releases, answered phone calls and responded to interviews.

A message from a reporter like me, at any time of day, was almost always promptly answered. He would say when there were times when he couldn’t answer a question and explain how he got the information on death tolls or affected areas.

When once a new staff member at the BBC’s Jakarta bureau called him and launched straight into a question about the latest on a disaster hit area, he said “Woah you’re asking straight away like that?! Say hello first and ask ‘how are you?'”

The journalist apologised and said “I am new to this, Pak”, and the interview continued.

Fake news buster

It was on Twitter – bypassing the traditional media – that Sutopo really came into his own.

In his posts he was at times poetic, whimsical, philosophical and playful as well as being serious when disasters struck.

“I joke a lot. If you see the social media of other ministries and institutions, it is a bit boring,” he told The Guardian once. “I’m not like that.”

Like many countries, Indonesia is struggling to combat fake news and Sutopo waged a war on misleading and wrong information.

  • Indonesia fights tsunami hoaxes
  • How the tsunami warning system failed the victims

He would label videos being widely shared as “hoaxes” and call on people to delete the posts from their accounts, worried that they would lead to unnecessary panic or hamper aid work.

In this tweet, one of many like it, he explains that this video showing lava flowing is not from Mount Soputan in North Sulawesi (that had just erupted) but from another place. “Ignore and don’t spread on social media,” he says.

He was a skilful social media player and would often tag influencers in his Twitter posts, particularly local pop singer Raisa Andriana. By our count, he tagged her more than 90 times in posts about various disaster-related information.

When asked why, he said: “So that Raisa helps spread information” to her eight million followers.

Their unusual friendship delighted Indonesian citizens and a hashtag campaign encouraging her to meet him started trending.

They did eventually, at the end of November last year. By then he had stage four lung cancer but said that on that day he was so happy he forgot he was ill. He was grinning from ear to ear.

‘Hero to humanity’

Sutopo was laid to rest on Monday in his home village of Boyolali in Central Java, where he grew up, by his own accounts in a poor family. His father was a schoolteacher.

Yet at his packed funeral there to show their respects were key political and military figures. Sutopo’s coffin was draped in the Indonesian flag. The head of the disaster mitigation agency, Doni Munardo, described him to mourners as a “hero to humanity” who had dedicated his life to Indonesia and its people.

“Prayers and tributes for him have come not only from across Indonesia but also from around the world,” he said.

His wife, crippled by grief, threw flowers over his grave. Their eldest son Muhammad Ivanka Rizaldy Nugroho said he had been a brilliant father.

“My father always taught us to be honest, he always encouraged us to be the best people we could be and he also shared whatever he had with others,” he said.

Huge role to fill

Sutopo himself was at times critical of Indonesia’s disaster mitigation efforts, highlighting the fact that the tsunami early warning system put in place after the Boxing Day 2004 Tsunami had long been broken.

“Since 2012, none of the buoys were operational, even though they are crucial for early warning,” he told reporters last year after a tsunami triggered by an earthquake killed thousands in central Sulawesi.

He was also frustrated when people would rebuild their homes near the sea after a tsunami or in earthquake-prone areas – against the agency’s advice.

He leaves a huge gap in the country’s disaster mitigation effort. The journalist chat groups he use to fill with information have been silent in recent weeks.

And some are asking if the disaster information system was too reliant on one man.

“We all feel an incredible loss,” says disaster agency head Doni Munardo. “The BNPB family worked so hard to try and give him the best medical treatment so that he could get better.

“Hopefully a new young Sutopo will be born who can continue Pak Topo’s fight.”

But perhaps there aren’t too many humans like Sutopo, who often said, “It’s not about how long your life is, it’s about what you do in your lifetime to help others.”

A biography about his life is in the works.

Renowned local journalist Najwa Shihab says he approached her to help him write it.

In a post on social media she recalled the message he sent her, where he said: “Hopefully my story can inspire others, particularly those with cancer. Maybe my journey will be of interest to others.”

Additional reporting from Boyolali by Fajar Sodiq

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