Saipul Jamil rides in a car after his release from prison in September, 2021. Photo: Credit: Nurdiansah / TEMPO
Wearing a flower garland, the man smiled while standing in a slow-moving convertible, waving to crowds gathered to see him upon his release from prison.
For many watching the scenes on Sept. 3 in Jakarta, the extravagant reception for Indonesian celebrity singer Saipul Jamil did not fit with the circumstances: the 41-year-old was free for the first time since being convicted more than five years ago for molesting a 17-year-old.
The warm welcome would mark the beginning of growing outrage over the singer, who has appeared on popular television shows and is now filling social media with posts about his travels.
A newly-created official TikTok account with his name quickly amassed more than 240,000 followers. One of its first video posts drew five million views and more than 350,000 likes. In it, Saipul thanked his fans and followers for their support and prayers. “Welcome back brother,” one supporter wrote in response, using a smiley heart emoji. “Very glad that bang Ipul is free,” another user wrote, using a nickname for the singer. “Hopefully [he] will be a better person than before. Success for the future.”
But backlash against the star is also mounting, with television stations around the country coming under fierce criticism for airing interviews with him. On the morning after his release, he appeared on a local variety show where he sang and danced in front of audiences. Clips of the show have since been deleted.
Media outlets in Indonesia are now under pressure to ban Saipul from the airwaves following petitions calling for action, which racked up close to 550,000 signatures as of Wednesday.
Andreas Harsono, a senior Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that coverage of Saipul’s release from prison portraying him as “a hero” was deeply troubling. “The incident should be a wake up call for many Indonesian TV executives to review their editorial policies and to start to train their producers and journalists on human rights and trauma reporting,” he said.
Indonesian filmmaker Angga Sasongko said that his production company would be dropping talks to run his movies on channels that air Saipul’s comeback. “This is intended to support the movement against the celebration of sexual violence against children in the media, as well as to raise awareness about the importance of media that respects our children”, he wrote on Twitter.
One TV station apologized for Saipul’s appearance following criticism from members of the public. In a public statement made last week, the Indonesian Broadcast Commission said that local stations and networks should not amplify or glorify Saipul’s release. But in a separate interview, its chairman said that it was fine for Saipul to still appear on TV “for educational purposes.”
“The incident should be a wake up call for many Indonesian TV executives to review their editorial policies and to start to train their producers and journalists on human rights and trauma reporting.”
In response to a request for comment, Saipul’s management team referred VICE World News to a previous post in which the singer addressed the backlash.
“I have served five years and seven months. The victim and I have made peace [through the courts] and there is no conflict whatsoever,” he said in the lengthy video post. “I’m free from the charge… just like any other citizen.”
Dangdut is a popular Indonesian folk music genre and before his arrest, Saipul was one of its biggest stars. He often hosted and performed on entertainment shows and sang high-profile duets with other stars—even being nominated for an MTV award in Indonesia back in 2006. He also dabbled in politics, running for deputy mayor in the city of Serang in 2008.
“I’m free from the charge… just like any other citizen.”
But everything fell to pieces in 2016 when a panel of judges sentenced Saipul to three years in prison for molesting a male fan, who was 17 years old at the time. The sentence was extended to five years on appeal, and he was later convicted for attempting to bribe a court clerk. The sentences were eventually reduced due to good behavior.
Experts say the story points to a number of broader issues in Indonesian society, from lack of education about the severity of sexual abuse to glamorizing celebrities.
“The public needs to have a sense of awareness and stand up with the victims of sexual violence. Of course, this is not an easy job, so we have to create radical change in society,” said activist Naila Rizqi Zakiah of the Civil Society Coalition Against Sexual Violence.
Philosophy lecturer Saras Dewi from the University of Indonesia said that many tend not to see their public figures from a moral perspective, and were able to normalize “outrageous” behavior through sensational media coverage. “We often see them as special. Even they can get away from mistakes through their celebrity status,” she said.
A strong victim-blaming culture also needs addressing, says gender activist Tunggal Pawestri, who has been following the case. But she also said the pushback was positive.
“Any effort to disrupt sexual offenders to appear on TV is useful,” she said. “At least, this can make an impression to the media and public to show why sexual offenders don’t deserve any platform.”
Meanwhile, videos with the star continue to be uploaded to TikTok, YouTube and Instagram. In recent days, Saipul shared photos of a vacation he took to Bali. And on Monday, Saipul appeared to address his critics in a cryptic Instagram post: “Be careful of doing wrong to a quiet person who does not reply, you are not dealing with him, but with his Lord.”
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