Monday, February 11, 2008


First published in The Jakarta Post, February 11, 2008


Organized by the Australian Consortium of In-Country Indonesia Studies (ACICIS), in partnership with Atma Jaya University, a group of Australian university students are on a six-week Journalism Professional Practicum in Jakarta. The program is designed to provide them with a greater insight into the realities of contemporary Indonesia. ACICIS deputy director David Reeve, a long-time Indonesian observer from the University of New South Wales, outlined the program for Alpha Amirrachman, who recently interviewed Reeve by email for The Jakarta Post.

Question: What aspects are the young Australian journalists learning in this program and how will it help them enhance their understanding of Indonesia?

Answer: Australian students will get a high-profile internship at a placement rarely offered to Australian journalism students. They will learn about Indonesian language, culture and society, and the life of a journalism professional in an overseas setting. We are very keen to encourage Australian journalism students to see Indonesia in a more positive way.

We are doing this program for the benefit of the students. But of course we hope that in the future it will be of benefit to both countries to have maybe hundreds of Australians in the media who have had a strong and positive experience in Indonesia.

How do you see the role of media in shaping relations between Indonesia and Australia?

I think that for people who have personal knowledge and experiences of Indonesia, the press does not have much role in shaping their beliefs. For those people, the press provides information but not attitude. That's why we are working through our programs to expose more and more students to Indonesia.

For the general public, the media can shape attitudes, and these have the potential to sway governments, particularly in difficult times. I'm thinking of the emotions in Australia around the Schappelle Corby case, when some Australian media played a shameful role. But then, other media reported well. It's a mix. Overall, I think that good relations are stronger than bad press.

What do you think Australian journalists are lacking when reporting on Indonesia?

I think both governments were dishonest in making the press a scapegoat for other things that were wrong. Australia has a great tradition of sending good correspondents to Indonesia. Several of them have written excellent books on Indonesia, helping Australians to understand Indonesia. That foreign correspondent tradition has been going on for some 50 years. They have been a high quality lot overall. But some reporters and editors back in Australia have been much less good.

You are right to see a "politics of fear" at work here; irresponsible stereotyping -- which is itself a tradition in Australian media for at least 150 years. What worries me now is the decreasing role for foreign correspondents in the Australian media. If that continues it will be a serious loss.

What do you think Indonesian journalists are lacking when reporting on Australia?

I enjoy reading all Indonesian reporting on Australia. I find it fascinating, and I don't mind whether it is positive or negative, well-sourced or badly informed. I find it all very interesting for what it tells me about Indonesian attitude. But as a scholar, I must say that some Indonesian reporting seems much better then others. The weaker journalists lack good contacts, lack personal experience and interpret events through prejudice and malice. That can actually make it more interesting to read, though less informative to the public. But that's the same all over the world. The good Indonesian journalism on Australia is of a high standard.

What are the various constraints Australian correspondents have come across in the process of foreign news reporting in Indonesia?

During the Soeharto era, Australian journalists had to be careful about reporting on Indonesia because there was always the threat that their visas would be canceled if they concentrated on "negative" news like human rights abuses, anti-government protests and independence movements in East Timor, Aceh and West Papua. In 1986 all Australian journalists were banned from Indonesia, and it took some time for all media organizations to be readmitted. Nowadays, Indonesia's free press means foreign journalists are not restricted, except in access to Papua and, perhaps, Aceh. However, there are still some underlying tensions because of perceived negative reporting in Australia on separatist issues, as well as the high profile given by the Australian media to terrorism in Indonesia and drug cases.

Both countries appear to enjoy a certain degree of press freedom. Does this freedom necessarily foster close neighborly ties?

Press freedoms are not meant to foster neighborly ties. That is not what they are for. They are for the health of the societies in which they operate. Neighborly ties are built in other ways. If they are good and strong ties, they have nothing to fear from press freedom. I think that all of us have experienced press freedoms and press restrictions. Even at its worst (rumors, defamation), a free press is better.

Do you think the killing of five Australian journalists in East Timor in 1975 still haunts Australian journalists and still has the potential to disturb Indonesia-Australia relations?

Yes, this issue still haunts some Australian journalists and also particularly the families of the journalists killed. Not surprisingly. Both governments would like to believe that the problem is behind them. I think that is true. The issue has remained alive for 32 years, and still has potential to disturb in the future. Both governments will try to play it down. But this is an issue with complex legal and moral aspects. It is hard to see what the best option would be. I also think of the large number of journalists killed around the world in 2007. It is always a bad idea to attack journalists.

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