JAKARTA, INDONESIA—When I ask Indonesian bureaucrats about the latest proclamations from some group concerned about the environment, I often get the same question: “Why are you journalists so close to the activists?” They complain that reporters view them as “the bad guys.”
Is it true? Perhaps. Environmental journalists here love covering reports from advocacy organizations, with all their strident accusations against the government, as well as most environmental protests. Sometimes, we even become part of the protests, or try to solve environmental problems ourselves.
This is largely a result of desperation. Irvan Riza, a program editor at KBR68H Radio in Jakarta, says the newsroom there is tired of covering environmental problems and waiting the government to act. Deforestation, for instance, is a major, ongoing problem in the country, so the station joined the “Tree Adoption Program” in Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park, which aims to stop locals from logging by giving them an alternative livelihood. Managed by KBR68H’s sister station, Green Radio FM, revenues from the program allow villagers to plant trees, purchase livestock, and install solar panels.
“By starting the project, we pushed the government to finally install electricity for the farmers we helped,” Irvan explained. But when I suggested that the station’s involvement made “green activists” out of the journalists there, he rejected the label, arguing that because paid advertisements run during its tree-adoption related programming, it qualifies as a standard commercial enterprise, not a nonprofit advocacy operation.
Kalimantan Review (KR), a monthly magazine on the island of Borneo, accepts the activist label, however. Launched in 1992 by the Institut Dayakologi, KR described itself as “advocacy media” delivering information to the island’s indigenous Dayak people about palm plantations, mines, and other projects that destroy local forests. Under the dictatorial Suharto government, it operated as a form of underground community media. The collapse of the regime in 1998 gave Indonesia greater press freedom, and KR no longer needed to remain underground. While it has moved into the more standard role of government watchdog, however, it continues to reflexively oppose most government actions and policies and is still considered to be “anti government.”
“It’s hard for us, because we want to do what the press should do: cover both sides fairly,” says Dominikus Uyub, KR’s chief editor. During the Suharto regime, most outlets quoted only pro-government sources, so his outlet did the opposite. Because of that, it now has trouble getting those government voices on record, and so continues to give more space to “the people.”
The problem is that KR has a unique double role. The so-called “advocacy magazine” not only informs local about important issues, but also tries to defend and empower Dayaks whom it sees as the abused victims of powerful economic, political, and military interests. Therefore, KR sees nothing wrong in accepting many local activists living in remote areas as contributors and giving them press identification after providing some journalism training.
That practice can lead to problems, however, as it did when contributing writer Vitalis Andi was arrested in February 2010 while covering a public protest and then sued by Sinar Mas, a company opening a palm plantation in West Kalimantan. KR sent Andi to cover the protest as an objective observer, but the police accused him of crossing the line and charged him with vandalism. The problem, as Uyub himself concedes, is that many people know Andi as “an activist who happens to be a journalist.” That label meant KR could not defend him by appealing to the Press Freedom Law, unless they could prove Andi was there as journalist, and while a lower court dismissed the charges against Andi, Sinar Mas has appealed the decision and the legal battle continues.
Aristides Katoppo, a senior environmental journalist at Sinar Harapan, a newspaper in Jakarta, said the strain of activism in environmental journalism is rooted in how the beat grew in the country. Environmental issues were alien to Indonesia until 1972 when President Suharto—inspired by the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden—established the Ministry of Development and Environment. He chose economic expert Emil Salim as minister and charged with finding a balance between Indonesia’s fast growing population, development needs, and environmental protection.
Lacking environmental knowledge at that time, Salim gathered journalists and whatever local experts he could find (most of the local academics had more expertise in agriculture, biology, sociology, or even architecture than environmental issues at the time) to learn about and pioneer environmental awareness in the country, soliciting input and cooperation from an organization called the Group for Environmental Conservation of Indonesia, or Hukli, to use its Indonesian acronym. They essentially “learned by doing.”