SMOKE SCREENING INDONESIAN JOURNALISM © Duncan Graham 2007
At a recent event in the Indonesian city of Surabaya organized by the East Java Regional Government, journalists were handed the standard media kits of brochures and statements in a thick folder.
Only later did I discover an envelope. Inside was 150,000 Indonesian rupiah – about NZ $ 25. Not much in the West, but for local reporters a useful sum making attendance worthwhile.
The two major national newspaper groups in Indonesia (Kompas and Jawa Pos) prohibit their staff from taking such payouts. These are usually disguised as ‘transport money’, and along with a good feed are bribes to write a positive story and ensure return invitations.
Although I gave the money back to the nonplussed government officials running the show I have some sympathy for those pocketing the cash. When their monthly pay is below NZ $300, and they see their less scrupulous colleagues stuffing their wallets, the temptation is great.
And it’s also part of the culture. Paying for services that Westerners think should be free, such as police investigations of crime, and having to grease the palms of public servants for permits and licences is commonplace.
If journalists are getting handouts from government departments and companies to put a positive spin on their reports, how trustworthy is the copy Indonesians read and the reports they hear and see? It’s a question the public is apparently now starting to ask. But first a bit of background.
For 32 years till 1998 Indonesia was in the iron grip of an authoritarian military-backed government led by General Soeharto. The media was rigidly controlled thorough publishing licences, restrictions on advertising and curbs on printing.
The censorship was well known. Creative scribes and sophisticated readers learned how to write and read between the lines in a few stories, but overall the media was bland and boring.
When Soeharto was forced to quit following street riots and a crashing economy, his successors dumped licences as part of the shift to democracy. Publishers went wild; print publications jumped from less than 300 to more than 2,000 before a reality check. Around 830 have survived.
According to Leo Batubara, a member of the Indonesian Press Council (IPC), about seven million papers are sold nationally every day – a tiny number in a country of about 240 million, so the market is wide open.
He also claimed only 30 per cent of print media companies and 40 per cent of the electronic media make a profit. But these figures are hard to prove or disprove as many publications are embedded in private companies with other agendas.
This boom has caught publishers short of quality journalists. The typical local reporter is young, enthusiastic, scruffy, ill-informed, badly educated and poorly trained. Men dominate. They often hunt in packs and feed off each other so copy is frequently generic.
The industry has also attracted idealists who publish their own little mags - and fringe dwellers with shonky credentials, operating like print paparazzi feeding off the envelopes and selling scandals to the infotainment mags.
The other growth industry has been in tertiary education. To take just one city as an example - Malang in central East Java, a town of less than one million, has more than 30 ‘universities’. Some offer froth and bubble courses in mass communications for wannabe TV presenters and comic book editors; few have credibility with hard-nose reporting or links to the industry.
Faced with these realities the IPC, which gets an annual government hand-out of 16 billion rupiah (NZ $2.5 million), wants to start its own school of journalism, citing public complaints about the quality of reporting as the motive.
Australian aid has been used to try and lift the hacks’ game, with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology holding workshops in the regions through the State-owned Antara news agency. Western Australia’s Murdoch University has also run a course for selected Indonesian investigative journalists.
(There may be opportunities here for NZ tertiary institutions that can balance theory with practice; Amris Hassan, the energetic new Indonesian ambassador in Wellington has been boosting trade and aid ties between the nations, and PM Helen Clark has been busy in the archipelago. This new-found interest in the Republic seems to be a bid to fill the gap caused by Indonesian public distrust of Australia and its support of the US in Iraq. When Indonesians think of the real or imagined enemies of Islam, NZ doesn’t rank.)
But whoever does the training it isn’t going to do more than embroider the edges if the sheet doesn’t get washed.
It’s not just the poor education standards, low wages and petty payouts corrupting the media that are the problem. The major threat to the impartiality of Indonesian journalism is coming from the big companies, and the tobacco industry in particular.
Indonesia is the only country in Southeast Asia that has neither signed nor ratified the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
Indonesia has some of the slackest controls on smoking in the region. Health activists are almost silent having been financially crippled by legal action when they unsuccessfully claimed TV tobacco company sponsorship of programs – including newscasts - was advertising in disguise.
Cigarettes are cheap, taxes are low and recently introduced restrictions on smoking in public are considered a farce when no controls are put on smokestacks and fuming car exhausts.
Compulsory health warnings on smoke packs and ads are miniscule and wordy. Attempts by a few gutsy politicians to bring the country into line with nations who care for their citizens’ health are countered by tobacco tsars’ reminders that up to five million workers depend for their livelihoods on people staying addicted to nicotine.
The streetscapes of Indonesian cities are dominated by huge billboards promoting fags – sights not seen in most neighboring nations. There’s hardly a paper or magazine that doesn’t inhale the cash from these ads – and that includes the Weekender magazine produced by the prestigious English language daily The Jakarta Post.
Not surprisingly tobacco companies don’t like being portrayed as purveyors of poisons and killers of citizens. So they try to boost their image by seeming to be socially responsible. They also need allies in the looming war against health activists. What better way than cuddling up to the media and satisfying needs?
In Indonesia Sampoerna (the name ironically means ‘pure’), now owned by the US giant Philip Morris, has started seducing journalists. It has already hosted a media workshop in association with the Independent Journalists’ Alliance attended by reporters from 19 publications, including the serious current affairs magazines like Tempo and Gatra.
Now it’s funding media prizes with cash awards equal in most cases to six month's salary for the average reporter. These goodies are being delivered through a foundation that carries the cigarette company’s name.
Last December, at a swish function in a five-star hotel to hand out the cheques, journalists from around Indonesia were treated to some wise words about social responsibilities and the dangers of taking bribes. The media’s role in a democracy and the need for fairness, accuracy and balance were rightly stressed.
The problem is that this sage advice was coming from people of standing who were supping with the devil and had forgotten to bring a long spoon. They’d allowed their good names to be associated with one of the nation’s principal dealers of death and disease.
In many other countries, including Indonesia’s near neighbors, the Sampoerna media award show would have been a no-show – boycotted by journalists, unions and publishers with principles.
The weight of public opinion is tilting slowly against this manufacturer of a toxin that’s killing an estimated half-a-million Indonesians every year, but the media seems unable to kick the habit.
Yet despite these serious problems, Indonesian newspapers offer a far more lively and liberal read than the dailies in Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia that are little more than government mouthpieces. Indonesian legislators complain a lot, and may have muzzled some TV satire, but so far they’ve yet to reintroduce the Soeharto controls.
The current hazard is the tobacco industry. Dumping smoke ads may briefly damage the publishers’ fiscal health, but failure to quit scars the industry’s credibility.
(First published in Pacific Media Centre 16 August 07)