FAITH IN INDONESIA

FAITH IN INDONESIA
The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, July 06, 2015

DESTINED TO BE DIFFERENT AND MISUNDERSTOOD?

Can we ever be mates?  
                                         
It all started so well.  In 1945 and during the following four-year struggle for independence against the Dutch, Australians were mainly on the revolutionaries’ side.
That was largely through sympathetic reporting by the small number of Jakarta-based foreign correspondents.  British and Dutch newsmen [it took many years before women got overseas postings] were regarded with suspicion, but Australians were seen to be friends.

No longer.  What’s gone wrong? Long before President Joko Widodo stopped taking phone calls from Prime Minister Tony Abbott and went ahead with the judicial killing of two Australian drug traffickers, there had been missteps, stumbles and tumbles.
After the fall of first president Soekarno in 1965 it seemed that relationships between the neighbors would improve.  The stridently anti-communist Soeharto took control, Konfrontasi was cancelled and fears of a Red Invasion vanished.
But ten years later Indonesian troops killed five Australian media workers at the East Timor town of Balibo, a story pursued since ‘with vigorous determination’ though no one has been convicted for what Australians see as murder.
It’s likely few Indonesians have heard of the event because books and a feature film have been banned – but the people next door have not forgotten.
‘For many Australian journalists the deaths of their colleagues were a rallying point for exposing Australian government complicity in covering up inconvenient details of the event in order to maintain positive relations with Indonesia,’ writes  Ross Tapsell in  By-Lines, Balibo, Bali Bombings, a history of the way Australian reporters have covered the Republic.
Don’t be discouraged by the silly alliterative title.  The author is an academic at the Australian National University and has based his research on interviews with those who were there.
After Balibo the Indonesian government started expelling foreign journalists.  That didn’t stop reporting or commentary.  A 1986 Sydney Morning Herald [SMH] story about corruption in the President’s family gave heart to Indonesians who hated the repression and graft of the New Order government, but infuriated an administration that had long conflated reporting with promotion of national development.  The slogan was ‘free but responsible’, with the government determining the definition.
Five years later came the Santa Cruz massacre when Indonesian troops gunned down at least 250 protestors in Dili.  The tragedy was widely reported in Australia where sympathies were with the Timorese who had helped Australian troops in the war against Japan.
The 1999 Referendum which gave the Timorese their independence marked another low point, now used as the gauge to measure the current anguish following Indonesia’s use of the death penalty against drug traffickers.
Tapsell doesn’t just focus on the difficulties faced by Australian journalists trying to understand the complexities of Indonesia while satisfying the simplistic analyses of their bosses; he also recognises the work of the Indonesian support staff and the problems they faced.
The camera operators, translators, advisors and fixers have seldom been acknowledged, though Yenny Wahid, daughter of the late President Gus Dur who worked for the SMH, did win a Walkley Award.  She was nominated for Australia’s top prize not by her employer but her Australian colleague, Louise Williams.
The foreign correspondents agree that they would have struggled without the help of Indonesian staff who were crushed between two loyalties.  Indonesian bureaucrats and army generals demanded the Indonesians curb their Australian bosses’ interest in stories that might show the Republic in a bad light.
The answer to the question: ‘Whose side are you on?’ had to be: ’The Truth’ – but that was of no interest to partisan officials who believed ‘my country, right or wrong.’  When things went bad the foreigners could jet out of the country; the locals had to stay put and take the blame.
Strident nationalism isn’t exclusive to Indonesia.  Australian correspondents have also faced hostility from their own nation’s diplomats and leaders who believe reporters aggravate situations that could be handled better without public scrutiny.
Having media organizations send extra staff to Indonesia to cover big stories like the Schapelle Corby case can cause friction with correspondents who live in the country and understand the subtleties. 
The megaspectacles [like the recent executions] draw interest away from other issues and paint everything about this complex country in black or white.
Several Australian journalists, frustrated by an inability to get the big story published have written books about their experiences.  Though quickly out-of-date because events move so fast they provide insights into the making of history.
The job can lead to serious damage.  The ABC’s Peter Lloyd suffered so much stress after covering the Bali bombing in 2002 that he turned to drugs. Two Australian journalists died in the 2007 Garuda crash in Yogyakarta and one suffered horrific burns and lost both her legs
Cynthia Banham’s extraordinary recovery and return to the media says much about personal courage and commitment to journalism.  It’s curious that her story is not in the book.
Also absent is any mention of Michael Bachelard who reported for Fairfax Media till early this year and did far more than just cover Jakarta politics.  His long pieces on life outside the capital, including West Papua, filled the gaps in Australians’ knowledge of their neighbor.
Tapsell’s book is a reworking of an earlier doctoral thesis, but it should have been updated.
Apart from these omissions, a few mistakes and occasional sloppy sub-editing this useful book helps explain why Australians and Indonesians see the world so differently.
Why bother? The pay is lousy, the work intense and the risks great. Peter Lloyd said: ‘Ours is the high minded vocational pursuit of truth and meaning.  We’re in it to shine light where others would prefer it to remain dark… Even the most hard-faced, cynical old hack secretly believes it to be true.  Otherwise they wouldn’t still be doing the job.’
And if they didn’t democracy would be a hollow concept.
By-lines, Balibo, Bali Bombings                                                                                               
 by Ross Tapsell                                                                                                               
 Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014    

First published in The Jakarta Post 29 June 2015)                                                                         





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