In effect, Ruai TV is operating a kind of private news service via SMS, but the station also displays selected messages in its public broadcasts. And it takes the best tips from its CJs and turns them into full-blown news stories produced by Alim and his professional colleagues.

“Having the link to a TV network and its news organization is what really makes the difference for this project, really gives it influence,” says Surjadi. “After I became active with the SMS network and Ruai TV, the palm oil companies were no longer able to lie so easily. They have to take us seriously.”

That’s important because the local communities are involved in numerous long-running land disputes with the plantation companies. Under a complicated Nucleus Estates and Smallholders scheme [PDF], the firms are given massive concessions to plant palm oil on forest land—much of it degraded by previous logging—but after five years they are supposed to hand over part of the land to local villagers to manage. It hasn’t happened, Simon says.

Adrianus Adam Tekot, another citizen journalist who is also a village headman, credits the SMS network for pushing the palm oil company in his area to hand over 117 hectares (290 acres) of plantation land to local people in the Binua Sunge Manur region of West Kalimantan where he lives, providing financial compensation in lieu of land to others, and repairing part of a dirt road it had rendered almost impassable due to its operations. This may be a pittance compared to the 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres) in concessionary land the company was provided by the government, but it’s a start, say the Dayak.

As for protecting natural forest, the results have been more limited, but Alim and Simon point to the Nanga Nuar case as an example of how providing news via text messaging can help. “The police came to us following our report on Ruai TV. We did not go to them,” says Alim. “As a result, the Ministry of Forestry has set up an investigative team and we are ready to provide information. A helicopter has come to do aerial surveillance three times, something that has never happened before.”

There have also been disappointments, Alim concedes, such as when he exposed a “big land scandal” in the Senggaulat area, and nothing happened. He’s also frustrated by the fact that many journalists in Kalimantan take payoffs to report positive news about palm oil companies. “I’ve been offered many bribes, too, as much as 30 million rupiah [over $3,000],” he says, holding up three fingers to indicate a stack of bills that high. “It’s actually a sign that we’re doing a good job as journalists. If we were just ordinary reporters, we wouldn’t be offered anything.”

Sam de Silva, an Internews technical advisor who helped set up the SMS network, thinks it can be improved if citizen journalists and other forest monitors are provided with smart phones able to record the GPS locations of infractions. He and his Internews colleagues are also researching “drone journalism” and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for covering environmental issues.

Meanwhile, Masiun and Alim are keen to get more funding to train more citizen journalists as reliable news sources. There are a lot more conflict areas in West Kalimantan, they say, that are going under-covered. But the fact that Ruai TV is willing to spend its own money to keep the SMS network going is the best evidence that it has value, and should be sustainable.

“Being a journalist opened my eyes to these forestry and land issues,” says Alim. “What is happening now, or beginning to happen is so satisfying, because usually the media only report complaints, but here we feel we are helping provide solutions.”

 

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James Fahn is the executive director of Internews's Earth Journalism Network and the author of A Land on Fire.