From Indonesia Now

Friday, August 04, 2006
Duncan Graham © 2006

The media hasn’t been getting a good press in Indonesia.

Count the issues: Corrupt hacks pocketing cash-stuffed envelopes to write saccharine reviews of business and government; idle reporters plagiarising the copy of their smarter colleagues here and overseas; editors seeking public office while sifting the news.

Since Suharto fell and his successors lifted media restrictions, an information-starved public has wolfed up the offerings.

But the industry has tripped over itself in the rush to profits. Smart machines and smarter screen jockeys have produced luscious layouts and gripping graphics. Sadly the copy hasn’t always matched the technology for there’s a dearth of well-trained observant and critical writers.

So how good are Indonesian journalists?

“Like journalists everywhere, there are good and bad,” said visiting Australian wordsmith Andrew Dodd.

“I’ve met some bloody good ones who have a lot of attitude. By that I mean they’re really curious and know when something needs to be fixed. They care about accuracy and talking to all sides. I love it when I see that – it’s really encouraging.

“But I’m concerned that some still report official policies uncritically, and they’re not always the older generation. That’s not journalism where I come from.”

Dodd coordinates a program designed to boost the skills of Indonesian reporters, editors, media-watch organisations and academics from communication study courses.

The idea of using Australian aid to train media workers came when Indonesian news agency Antara got involved. The aid is part of the five-year AUD $2 billion (Rp13,600 billion) Indonesia Australia Specialised Training Project (IASTP).

Other programs on teacher training, health care and administrative skills are being run separately in Indonesia and Australia.

Last year a group of Indonesian journalists spent three months in Australia studying modern media practices at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).

This year Antara and IASTP agreed the training should be done in the tropics using wisdom gleaned from the 2005 students and a clearer understanding of their needs and concerns.

Classes have been held in Kupang, Mataram, Surabaya and Makassar. In each location about 20 local media workers have talked and typed their way through an intensive six-day course involving theory and practice.

Dodd, a former print reporter and TV and radio producer was contracted by RMIT International, which also hired local trainers, including two from The Jakarta Post. Two Indonesian-based Australian journalists were employed.* The others were experts in corporate news, investigative journalism, ethics, media law and covering crises.

One exercise featured diplomats from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta holding media conferences on so-called ‘illegal fishing’ problems in the country next door. This is a hot topic in Australia but a cool issue in Indonesia.

An analysis of a mythical company’s balance sheet devised by business scribe Her Suharyanto foxed all. Hidden in the figures (but not too deeply) was a radically different story to the one told by the press release. Students reproduced the handout glowing with predictions of prosperity - and missed the deceptions and looming bankruptcy.

Another task involved sending reporters into local markets. They were assigned to get stories from old women about sport, ethnic minorities about local history and kids’ comments on the economy.

The idea was to hunt for fresh talent, to steer journalists away from routine and predictable sources - frequently plump pontiffs and boring old blokes in batik.

The trainers urged a more critical approach to the statements of authorities and clarification of jargon. They stressed that journalists reporting for the independent media had a responsibility to their readers, listeners and viewers to be clear, unbiased and honest – and not parrot official lines without probing reasons.

Pushing ‘good governance’ (the latest buzz-phrase for accountable administration) and gender awareness, the program also emphasised ‘change management.’

Can journalism make things better or worse? Should the media support the government because in a democratic society the elected reps are the people’s choice? Or should it take a watchdog role, snapping at the hems and cuffs of the well-heeled?

Under Suharto such questions weren’t openly discussed. Critics could be censored. Careers were terminated. So were lives. The brave were sidelined and the timid prospered.

Antara editor Maria Andriana assisted with the course in Australia and all Indonesian centres, and watched the trainees’ reactions and progress:

“Our surveys show 90 per cent of participants implement the training in their jobs, so they’re getting real benefits,” she said.

“There’s been a wide spread of talent, age and experience. This has helped broaden views.

“Indonesia and Australia want to improve human resources, and journalists have a key role in society as change agents. Gender awareness is a new concern for us in the smaller cities and an important issue.”

Commented Her Suharyanto: “In this country political opposition has still to find a credible and consistent voice. So the need for more professionalism in the media is a critical factor in developing democracy.”

(*Declaration of interest: The writer was one of the trainers.)

(First published in The Jakarta Post 4 August 2006)
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