Millions of People Watched an Indonesian Journalist Interview an Empty Chair

The mock sit-down was meant to be with the health minister, who has come under fire for his handling of the pandemic.
September 30, 2020, 5:53am
Indonesia, coronavirus
Indonesian TV presenter Najwa Shihab is interviewing an empty chair. Photo archive from Mata Najwa talk show / Narasi TV

A prominent news presenter in Indonesia conducted an interview with an empty chair after the country’s embattled health minister repeatedly turned down invitations to appear on her show, as authorities struggle to control a COVID-19 outbreak that has infected more than 280,000 people. 

TV presenter Najwa Shihab, who has more than 14 million followers on Instagram where the video was uploaded, fired off question after question to the unoccupied chair in a one-way conversation with absent health minister and former military doctor Terawan Agus Putranto, who has faced intense criticism for his handling of the pandemic.

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“Why have you disappeared, sir? You rarely speak in public about the state of the pandemic. It seems like you’re the most low-profile health minister in the world. Or do you feel that your presence as the health minister is really not that important?” she asked late Monday as silence filled the empty studio in response.

She also condemned the government’s lack of transparency and competence in fighting the virus, which has infected 282,724 people and killed at least 10,601 people, one of the highest rates in Asia.

Terawan has become an object of ridicule since the virus first hit Indonesia in early March. He played down the threat, dismissed a Harvard study on the potential for undetected virus spread in the country, and held a big ceremony to welcome home crew members from the Dream World cruise ship who had just completed their 14-day quarantine.

He also claimed the outbreak would go away on its own, and Indonesian citizens should keep praying for their safety

“I want to clarify whether it’s true that at the beginning of the pandemic, you were the first to mention that we didn’t need a lockdown…President Joko Widodo has publicly rebuked you for your poor performance,” she told the chair.

“Based on his assessment, I’d give you the opportunity to explain them one by one. Why haven’t our COVID-19 tests reached the target? Why is the ministry’s budget [for COVID-19] so low? Why are the health ministry’s regulations still confusing? Why hasn’t the government provided maximum health protection to health workers?”

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She concluded with a call for him to resign.

“The public has made a petition that urges your dismissal as the health minister. Are you ready to step down, sir?”

The political talk show, Mata Najwa, which literally means “Najwa’s Eyes,”  is one of the most popular news broadcasts in the Southeast Asian country, and the video soon began making the rounds on social media with the trending hashtag #MataNajwaMenantiTerawan (#MataNajwaIsWaitingForTerawan).

Najwa told local media she aimed to urge the health minister to be more accountable, but pro-government supporters called the interview a form of cyberbullying and a violation of journalistic ethics as the minister could not defend himself.

Terawan did not immediately reply to a request for comment from VICE News. But an official was quoted as saying the minister was too busy to participate.

Wisnu Prasetya, a media researcher and lecturer with the Department of Communication Science at Gadjah Mada University in the city of Yogyakarta, told VICE News that while the minister had no obligation to come on the show, it was his duty as a public servant to remain transparent about his policies, especially in times like these.

“This empty chair interview symbolizes our frustration regarding the government’s handling of the pandemic,” he said. “Her questions addressed all of our concerns.”

This is not the first time a journalist has turned to the gimmick to make a point. Last year Sky News presenter Kay Burley interviewed an empty chair where British conservative politician James Cleverly would have sat.