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.”
“Why did Emil invite journalists to join the group? Before the ministry was formed, many journalists also happened to be environmentalists since they were students, during which they used to advocate for people with environmental problems,” said Katoppo, a pioneer in the country’s green movement. Journalists became used to carrying out underground advocacy activities when they were not able to publish their stories. Salim saw their participation as a chance to give him perspectives on real environmental problems happening in field.
Later, with Salim’s support, the experts formed the country’s first green NGO, known as Walhi, which is still one of its most famous. Meanwhile, the journalists who were involved—like Katoppo, George Junus Aditjondro, formerly of Tempo magazine, and Don Hasman from the now defunct Mutiara tabloid—chose to start pioneering green journalism in Indonesia. It was a big step for a country still under dictatorship. Many journalists faced suppression under the Suharto regime, but at the same time, green journalists and Walhi worked hand-in-hand with Salim during the seventies and eighties. They were invited to many environment ministerial meetings and contributed to developing many environmental policies.
This cozy relationship more or less ended when everyone finally realized that green also means money. After climate change became a big issue in the country in 2007—when a high-profile United Nations climate change summit was held in Bali—more ministries took interest and established new bodies and councils to weigh in on the issue. Today in Indonesia, the Forestry Ministry, Environment Ministry, the National Climate Change Council, the President’s Development Monitoring and Control Unit, the Economic Coordination Ministry, and the National Development Strategic Plan Agency all play a role in developing policies on the issue. In addition, the focus on fighting climate change through the UN’s REDD program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) has brought many more stakeholders into the discussion, as it involves managing forests in and around at least 33,000 villages, and numerous mining and plantation concessions.
With more government bodies involved, green journalists slowly lost their role in helping to formulate environmental policies and became outsiders alongside many local green activists. Their harmonious relationship with their government is breaking, while they’re becoming closer to the activists. Still, environmental journalism is growing in Indonesia, and not everyone agrees that activism should be part of that growth.
In 2006, the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ) was formed as a professional non-advocacy membership organization (full disclosure: I sit on the organization’s board). SIEJ focuses on building the capacity of journalists to cover environmental issues, and not taking sides, so that more journalists can help explain the complicated issues in a balanced fashion to the public. “Taking sides in any statement or environmental event isn’t what SIEJ should do, but of course we allow our members to follow their own personal views,” said IGG Maha Adi, the group’s director.
Katoppo agrees that journalists should be allowed to express their own views, but sees nothing wrong with taking part in statements and protests as well. “I don’t believe in the perspective of news just being news, because it treats people as a business commodity, with journalists in the role of selling [or sensationalizing] news about them,” he said. “We have to understand there’s a social responsibility along with every news story we publish.”
Moreover, Katoppo said, government or business entities—including mining and plantation interests—run many Indonesian media outlets, leading to potential bias in their coverage. So he argues that journalists staking out advocacy positions in favor of local communities and the environment may lead to more balance. “Objectivity in news means we have to base our story on truth and facts, but we should have a clear basis of taking the side of the public interest,” he said.