Public Hallucinations: The Palyja Sale Mystery

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  • Sejumlah warga antre air bersih di Tangki air Palyja di Jati Baru, Tanah Abang, Jakarta, (2/9). ANTARA/M Agung Rajasa

    Sejumlah warga antre air bersih di Tangki air Palyja di Jati Baru, Tanah Abang, Jakarta, (2/9). ANTARA/M Agung Rajasa

    In March, back when Manila Water was trying to acquire a controlling stake in PAM Lyonnaise Jaya (Palyja), the company which manages the western half of Jakarta's piped water system, Tempo ran a story that mentioned a mysterious press release that had been circulated about the two firms. At the time, Manila Water and Suez Environment, the France-based multinational that owns 51 percent of Palyja, had already agreed to the sale. They only needed Jakarta to sign off on it.

    The release, titled "Manila Water to Manage Jakarta Water", appeared to bring tidings of a major development: that the provincial government had finally given its blessing. It quoted Jakarta Deputy Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, as saying that Manila Water had a good track record. It also included positive comments from four experts in the field.

    The release carried no letterhead, but news organizations apparently thought it came from city hall. Kompas, Jakarta Globe and Antara reported it as fact. The only problem: it was not true. "I never sent that press release," Ahok told Tempo in late March. "Besides, there has been no decision yet." Jakarta ended up rejecting the deal.

    The only indication of the release's origin was a name, Vanya Manuputty, and a cell phone number, listed on the bottom of the page. When Tempo called the number in March, Vanya responded, but she refused to name her employer. Then she hung up. She rejected all text messages after that.

    A quick Google search reveals that since 2011, Vanya has been a junior consultant at PowerPR Asia Pacific, a public relations firm run by Christovita Wiloto. Christovita is a prominent figure in the world of Indonesian PR, having appeared on talk shows and authored several books. One of them, Behind Indonesia's Headlines, argues that Indonesian news outlets usually fail to reflect what has happened in reality.

    When Tempo called Christovita last week and asked if Vanya still worked for PowerPR, he said she did not. When asked when she stopped working for PowerPR, he said he would have to check. When informed that Tempo was trying to determine the source of the mysterious press release and the identity of Vanya's employer at the time it was sent, he said again he would have to check. But he never returned Tempo's e-mails, one of which included a copy of the release, nor text messages after that.

    The release was not Ahok's first encounter with Christovita, one of the deputy governor's staffers said. The staffer told Tempo that Christovita once called Ahok to request a meeting to discuss the Palyja sale. At the time he claimed to represent Astratel Nusantara, a company which owns 49 percent of Palyja. But, the staffer said, when he called Astratel to check, its CEO denied ever hiring Christovita. In an e-mail last week, Astratel's corporate secretary told Tempo the same thing. Christovita told Tempo the story was not true.

    Tempo talked to everyone quoted on the press release, not just Ahok. None of them could remember any Vanya Manuputty, though they would not rule out the possibility of forgotten having spoken with to her. Three of them - Indonesia Water Institute director Firdaus Ali, National Economic Committee member Aviliani and University of Indonesia academic Agus Pambagio - did not necessarily disagree with the statements attributed to them. But Erna Witoelar, chair of the Asia Pacific Water Forum, quoted as saying the transfer of Palyja's shares should happen as soon as possible, said she never said such a thing.

    "I don't know that person," she told Tempo, referring to Vanya. "Whoever [made that release], I'd be interested to know.

    Palyja spokeswoman Meyritha Maryanie said Palyja was definitely not behind the press release. Manila Water could not be reached for comment.