Scientist in Indonesia faces police summons for research on potential tsunami

Mr Widjo Kongko had presented what he called an "initial assessment of potential tsunamis" in some regions in the south-western part of Java, Indonesia's most populated island.
Mr Widjo Kongko had presented what he called an "initial assessment of potential tsunamis" in some regions in the south-western part of Java, Indonesia's most populated island.PHOTO: TWITTER/ WIDJOKONGKO

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A government scientist whose assessment of the potential for tsunamis along Indonesia's south-western coast sparked controversy on the Internet is currently awaiting a summons from the police who plan to question him about the study.

The scientist, Widjo Kongko, a tsunami expert from the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT), gave a presentation on April 3 at the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency's (BMKG) office in Jakarta.

He presented what he called an "initial assessment of potential tsunamis" in some regions in the south-western part of Java, Indonesia's most populated island.

Banten Police have said they will serve Widjo with a summons because of "statements that have caused concern" among citizens in Pandeglang, an area where, according to Widjo's assessment, a 57-metre-high tsunami wave could occur in what he described as "the worst possible scenario".

Banten Police's special crimes director, Sr. Comr. Abdul Karim, said on Friday (April 6) as quoted by local media radarbanten.com, that Widjo's assessment had "undermined the investment climate in the area". He said he would summons not only Widjo but also the organiser of the April 3 event.

Widjo had yet to receive any summons from the Banten Police as of Monday, the scientist told The Jakarta Post.

Widjo's assessment was first reported by a journalist from detik.com, a popular Indonesian news portal, who attended the April 3 event.

Detik.com reported that Widjo had "predicted" the possibility of a 57-metre-high tsunami in Pandeglang. The article was shared frequently over the next few days and remained unchanged until Monday evening, with the news organisation then erasing the word "predicted" and other terms that could lead to an interpretation that Widjo had forecast a tsunami would occur in Pandeglang.

Scientists and science-communication experts said Widjo's presentation was not a crime and was protected under the tenet of academic freedom.

"There's nothing wrong with the study, which is about a possible tsunami, and there's no crime at all," said Harry Surjadi, a senior Indonesian science journalist, on Monday.

The controversy over reports about potential for a tsunami in Pandeglang, nevertheless, has shown how the scientific literacy of Indonesians remains poor, said Harry, who is also the executive director of the Society of Indonesian Science Journalists (SISJ).

"Not all Indonesians understand that earthquakes cannot be predicted," said Harry. "So when they read online news piecemeal, they think it is something that is going to happen for sure."

Henny Warsilah, a senior sociologist with the Indonesian Science Institute (LIPI), said that scientists' academic freedom must be ensured when they presented scientific research, especially when the study was presented at an academic forum.

"Scientists who present research cannot be criminalised," Henny said.

"What Widjo presented was a general scenario of a tsunami. In any scenario, there must be assumptions, data, formulation and estimates," said Henny. "Research into tsunami modelling is important because our country is prone to disasters, including tsunamis, because our geographical location is within the ring of fire."

The BMKG told a news conference last week that Widjo's presentation was not a "prediction". Rather, it was the "result of expert modeling of research and assessment that has been proven scientifically".

"We call on society to become more aware in responding to information related to earthquakes and tsunamis," said BMKG deputy for geophysics Muhamad Sadly, Antara news agency reported.

In reference to Widjo's presentation, Sadly said that if information was an unproven initial assessment, it could not be used as an official basis for disaster mitigation.

Harry added that journalists had to clearly learn how to report scientific topics to prevent false reports from arising.

"Scientific journalism is important in increasing citizens' scientific literacy and to improve their understanding of disasters."