‘Ratings are more important’: Authorities denied police request to move fatal football match

Malang, Indonesia: Indonesian football authorities rejected a request from police to shift the ill-fated Javanese derby between Arema FC and Persebaya Surabaya from an evening kick-off to the afternoon to satisfy the league broadcaster, says a member of the taskforce formed to investigate the world’s deadliest stadium disaster in decades.

The death toll from Saturday night’s post-game crush rose to 133 on Tuesday, according to the Indonesian ministry of women’s empowerment and children, which said 37 children between the ages of three and 17 were among those killed. The ages of a further 18 victims had not yet been established.

A man prays for the victims of Saturday’s soccer match stampede in front of gate 13 the Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang, Indonesia.Credit:AP

Most suffocated or were trampled on at Kanjuruhan stadium in a rush from the exit gates as police fired tear gas in response to a pitch invasion by Arema fans, some of whom threw bottles and other objects at players and football officials following their team’s surprise 3-2 defeat.

Indonesia security minister Mahfud MD has forecast criminal action against police found to have committed wrongdoing at the venue on Saturday.

National police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo told a press conference that nine senior East Java police officers had been suspended and a further 18 mid to low-ranking police were being investigated over the use of tear gas, which according to witnesses was fired into the grandstands and outside the venue, where clashes broke out and police vehicles were torched.

Malang police chief Ferli Hidayat has also been relieved of his duties by national police chief General Listyo Sigit Prabowo.

A man stands near a broken gate with graffiti “my brother was killed, investigate thoroughly,” and “Good bye my brother” at Kanjuruhan Stadium.Credit:AP

On Tuesday night, however, it emerged that Hidayat had instructed his personnel not to use tear gas at the match.

CNN Indonesia reported that a preliminary investigation by the national police commission – an advisory body to President Joko Widodo – had discovered that the Malang commissioner had made the order five hours before the game.

The revelation came as Akmal Marhali, whose heads Indonesian football watchdog Save Our Soccer, said decision-making of football officials was also deserving scrutiny.

Marhali, who has been appointed to a government-commissioned fact-finding team into the horrific events on Saturday night, said the Malang police chief had requested in a letter to the match committee on September 18 that the East Java derby be played in the afternoon and not at night for security reasons.

Police officers and soldiers stand amid tear gas smoke at Kanjuruhan Stadium on Saturday.Credit:AP

PT LIB, the organisers of Liga 1, the Indonesian top division, did not agree to the change after discussions with the Indonesian football association, the PSSI, and the league broadcaster Indosiar, he said.

“The Malang police chief asked the match committee to bring forward the timing to late afternoon. His reasons were if unwanted situations occurred it was easier to handle at day time compared to nighttime,” Marhali told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on Tuesday.

“Secondly, if the match went as scheduled, [starting] at 8pm and finished by 10pm, psychologically the security people were tired. People tend to make irrational judgments when tired, psychologically speaking.

“The Arema committee conveyed these concerns to the PT LIB. LIB then held a meeting with PSSI and the broadcaster on this but they insisted the match should go on as scheduled at 8pm. It was because they had agreed with the broadcaster on the timing. It means ratings are more important than safety.”

The deployment of tear gas is banned under the regulations of FIFA, world football’s governing body, and police have been blamed by supporters for its use at Malang, which incited panic and breathing difficulties.

Marhali said police were using “mass control measures” that were not suitable for a confined space like a football stadium.

“The question is: has the PSSI informed the police [of the FIFA rules] prior to the season?” Marhali said.

Contacted for comment on Tuesday, LIB director Akhmad Hadian Lukita replied: “I’m still occupied with providing information [to the police]. I’m sorry.”

Mahfud, the minister in charge of the taskforce, said on Tuesday: “We should go to the field, talk to witnesses, meet with those who gave commands, [talk] to networks [about] why the proposed time in the afternoon [was not heeded] and that the match was held still at night time”.

Supporters of visiting team Persebaya were barred from attending the match because of security concerns.

The conduct of military personnel working at the stadium is also being investigated including widely shared videos of soldiers hitting fans with batons and, in at least one case, running and kicking supporters.

“Looking from the viral video that was not in self-defence. For me, that was a criminal act. The person wasn’t even facing the officer yet he was attacked,” Indonesia defence force chief General Andika Perkasa said.

“We will not be aiming at disciplinary [action] but criminal [charges] because that was just over [the line].”

The families of the deceased will be paid 50 million rupiah ($5000) in compensation and the injured will receive free health care, Mahfud announced.

Thousands of Indonesians gathered again on Monday night to light candles for the victims in cities including Surabaya, Bekasi and Medan.

Relatives and friends of the dead have also continued to return to the stadium with club supporters to mourn and pray.

Among them was 21-year-old Fadhir, who attended the match with three cousins and three friends. One of his cousins, 19-year-old Mita Maulidia, did not make it out alive.

“I saw many people in the area outside the stadium trying to run away. We were all in a panic,” said Fadhir, sitting alone in front of the statue of a lion, the Arema club symbol, that is outside the ground.

“I ran to the kiosk near the mosque [opposite the stadium]. I met my cousins but one was missing and they told me she died. I was shocked and went back inside to find her.”

Police are questioning witnesses and analysing video from 32 security cameras inside and outside the stadium and nine phones owned by the victims as part of an investigation that will also identify suspected vandals, the national police spokesman said.

– with Amilia Rosa and AP

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