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Indonesia Says Goodbye to Official Who Helped People Cope with Quakes, Tsunamis

Ahmad Syamsudin and Tia Asmara
Boyolali, Indonesia, and Jakarta
2019-07-08
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A member of the Regional Disaster Management Agency holds a photo of Sutopo Purwo Nugroho during his funeral procession in Boyolali, Central Java, July 8, 2019.
A member of the Regional Disaster Management Agency holds a photo of Sutopo Purwo Nugroho during his funeral procession in Boyolali, Central Java, July 8, 2019.
Kusumasari Ayuningtyas/BenarNews

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo spoke about measuring life by how people help others as Indonesia bade farewell Monday to an official who kept the public informed about frequent natural disasters in the country even while battling lung cancer.

The president was evoking the words by which Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency, was known. Sutopo died early Sunday at Guangzhou Modern Cancer Hospital in China where he had been treated since mid-June, and was buried in his hometown of Boyolali in Central Java province on Monday.

“During earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis or fires, Mr. Sutopo kept us informed so that we could remain on alert and not be confused,” Jokowi said in a statement.

“Life is not about how long it is, but it’s about how much we are of help to other people,” Jokowi said. “He stayed true to that adage.”

Sutopo’s death at 49 unleashed an outpouring of grief among Indonesians, who had followed his reports on television and social media posts that provided updates on natural disasters, ranging from earthquakes to tsunamis and landslides, which occur regularly across the archipelago.

Sutopo, who is survived by his wife and two children, was widely praised for insisting on carrying out his day-to-day duties with gusto despite what he described as “unbearable pain” after being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in early 2018.

He died just hours before a strong earthquake struck off the Molucca Islands in eastern Indonesia on Sunday night. For more than five hours, the disaster agency that Sutopo had run so efficiently was unable to post information on possible damage or casualties despite a tsunami warning being issued and later lifted by the country’s meteorological agency.

In an interview with BenarNews last November, Sutopo said he sometimes fielded phone calls and text messages from journalists and wrote press releases while undergoing chemotherapy sessions in a hospital. He kept a list of more than 3,000 local and foreign journalists.

Keeping himself busy eased the pain, Sutopo said. During 2018, he reported on and fielded media inquiries as earthquakes devastated parts of Lombok and Sulawesi islands between July and September, killing more than 3,500 people.

“When I work I forget all the pain, even more so when my press conferences are attended by many journalists,” he told BenarNews.

Muhammad Ivanka Rizaldy Nugroho prays at his father’s grave, July 8, 2019. [Kusumasari Ayuningtyas/BenarNews]
Muhammad Ivanka Rizaldy Nugroho prays at his father’s grave, July 8, 2019. [Kusumasari Ayuningtyas/BenarNews]

Sutopo’s social media accounts were not totally devoted to his work. He showed his romantic side last year when he revealed that he wanted to meet Raisa, a popular singer known for her love songs.

Twitter users began using the hashtag #SutopoMeetRaisa to draw attention to his wish to meet the pop star.

Raisa got the message and video-called him in October 2018 to wish him a speedy recovery. A month later, the pair met in a building where Sutopo had gone to do an interview and Raisa was promoting her new song.

“My Twitter today has #RaisaMeetSutopo all over it. I’ve read all the stories in your tweets, friends, and it made me feel like I’ve known Pak Sutopo for a long time. He’s loved by many. Keep your spirit and keep on inspiring, Pak Sutopo :)” Raisa tweeted at the time.

Fake news fighter

Even as he battled cancer, Sutopo made it his mission to fight fake news disseminated over social media and instant messaging services.

His Twitter feed regularly debunked hoaxes and fake news circulating online about disasters, including videos of old volcanic eruptions being passed off as new along with chain messages warning of impending earthquakes.

Septiaji Eko Nugroho, chief of the Indonesian Society Against Fake News (Mafindo), said Sutopo was an exemplary figure among public officials in a country where government agencies are not immune from corruption.

“In this era of social media, every disaster is almost always accompanied by the dissemination of inaccurate information. Most of this misinformation is spread by people who are well-intentioned, who want to help, or want to warn their loved ones,” Septiaji said. “He was acutely aware that disinformation at a time of a disaster could mean life or death for people affected.

“He had a constant positive attitude and always exuded optimism,” Septiaji said. “Indonesia has lost a teacher, an exemplary civil servant and a fake news fighter, a figure who put public interest above all else.”

Mourners carry the casket of Sutopo Purwo Nugroho into a funeral home in East Jakarta, July 7, 2019. [Tia Asmara/BenarNews]
Mourners carry the casket of Sutopo Purwo Nugroho into a funeral home in East Jakarta, July 7, 2019. [Tia Asmara/BenarNews]

On Monday, neighbor Manaor Simbolon, described Sutopo as a humble man who liked to exercise regularly.

“He was a good person, friendly and cheerful. He was active in the community. We, his neighbors, will miss him dearly,” said Simbolon who was among hundreds of people paying their respects at Sutopo’s house on the outskirts of Jakarta.

Ayuningtyas Kusumasari in Boyolali, Indonesia, and Keisha Aprilia and Ami Afriatni in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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