Shootings in the era of WhatsApp

Shootings in the era of WhatsApp

My colleague in Kota Kinaba­­-lu, Muguntan Vanar said excitedly: "There is a stand-down situation in Penampang Baru. There are gunmen here and gunshots were heard. Police have cordoned the area." His message came at 4.29pm on Thursday.

"What happened? Who are the gunmen?" I asked excitedly, regretting I was at Menara Star in Petaling Jaya and not in Penampang Baru.

"Not sure yet. I got to go. The police have asked us to move out of this place," said Muguntan.

"Once you get the information, send the story quick for Star Online." Immediately, I WhatsApp-ed my "Sabah Future" group consisting of Sabahans who are concerned about their political future. "There's a stand-down in Penampang Baru. Initial report is someone with a gun," I wrote. I forwarded the same message to my other WhatsApp groups including my immediate family.

"Right now as currently? Where?" someone replied.

"Near Servay. Right now. Infor­mation sketchy as reporters asked to move away from scene," I replied.

Four minutes later, a flurry of photographs of the stand-down appeared on WhatsApp - mostly scenes showing shoplots cordoned off by the bright yellow police tape.

Immediately, I tweeted the photograph with the text: "Stand-down near Servay in Penampang Baru, Sabah. Initial report says there were gunshots heard."

Then in my WhatsApp came chilling photos of armed masked men. The initial unverified WhatsApp re­­­ports were that the masked men hol­­d­­ing automatic rifles were robbers.

I too fell for the fake reports. I tweeted the photograph of an armed masked man and wrote: "This man is believed to be a gunman in the shootout between police and armed robbers near Servay in Penampang Baru."

Mistake. I should have called Muguntan first. Later, he told me that the "masked robbers" were actually masked policemen.

I tweeted the same photograph and wrote: "Correction. Pix of policeman and not gunman. Two robbers shot dead in Penampang Baru in Kota Kinabalu."

Then came the flurry of rumours and reaction to the shooting.

"Dengar ada 1 orang mati. Orang Santung di Servay Penampang (Heard one person is dead. A Shan­dong man in Servay Penampang)."

"Tukang masak mati di tembak (A cook shot dead)."

"Police wearing mask? Tiada bullet best pun? (Not wearing bullet proof vest) I thought they are robbers."

"Training komando jer pula. Bikin suspen betul. (It is only a commando training. It was really suspenseful)."

I Whatsapp-ed: "It is not training. What happened is cops shot dead two robbers" and posted a photograph of a dead man slumped in an Isuzu DMax pickup truck.

Someone, whom I don't want to name as I don't want to embarrass my sister, Josie, wrote: "Two dead robbers acting juga kah? (The two dead robbers are also acting?)"

"They are dead," I said.

"Jangan panik tu latihan. Skuad komander polis jah (Don't panic, it is only training. It is only a police commando squad)," she replied.

"Don't think it is training. The robbers are dead," I said.

"See everybody think just wayang kulit saja by commandos. Suruh Star reporters check kalau betul na­­pa­tai??? Red paint maybe (See, everybody thinks that it is a shadow play by commandos. Tell The Star repor­ters to check if the robbers are really dead. Maybe they used red paint to simulate that the robber was killed)," she wrote.

Irritated, and because I just re­­ceived a photograph of the dead rob­­ber, I Whatsapp-ed the pix and wrote: "Since Josie thinks it was training, here's pix of the dead man."

Josie replied with three "thumbs up" emoticons.

Someone WhatsApp-ed an online article that reported: "It is understood that four masked gunmen are currently holed up in the Servay hy­per­­market with an unknown number of hostages."

"The story is wrong. As no hostage situation," I wrote.

On Whatsapp, people were speculating that Sulu gunmen had attacked Kota Kinabalu. For example, someone wrote: "Are the robbers Abu Sayyaf?" An official-looking Sulu gunmen attack alert, which looked like it came from the cops, was also circulated on WhatsApp.

It was a day filled with conspiracy theories. Many believed the 4pm shootings involved Sulu gunmen.

Sabahans are still spooked over the Tanduo intrusion where armed Sulu rebels invaded Lahad Datu last year. Many believe there will be a repeat of Tanduo.

I, however, don't blame the public as the police silence over the shooting gave birth to many conspiracy theories. In the age of WhatsApp, the cops have to be quick in explaining what had happened. Instead, they seized journalists' cameras and deleted the pictures.

My colleagues and I called our intelligence sources. Half of them said the shootout involved "penganas Sulu" (Sulu terrorists) while the other half insisted the dead men were robbers. I think the truth is the two men were robbers and Sulu gunmen.

At 10.43pm, my colleague Norman Ong WhatsApp-ed me: "Bernama. Police shot dead two men who are believed to be Sulu militants."

"Police surveillance on the two men a few weeks ago had revealed they tried to recruit new members, spread the so-called Sulu Sulta­nate ideology in Sabah, as well as preached elements of violence," Ber­nama re­­ported, quoting a police source.

"The suspects, who came from Ko­­ta Kinabalu, were also attempting to commit an armed robbery in the area."

The next morning, in a press conference, Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Jalaluddin Abdul Rahman said police suspected the duo were part of a group of robbers involved in at least three robberies involving more than RM1mil.

He said police would investigate whether the two dead men were top commanders of the Royal Sulu Force. Until then, many Sabahans will remain spooked.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

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